This small book, with the tremendously long title printed in gold letters on the cover, is classified as a Literary Graphic Novel, and also a modern fable, a morality tale, a picture book, and a portfolio of drawings. But who cares about all that marketing stuff? Since its publication about a year ago, it has become a best-seller and has received high praise and hardly any criticism. I think it is because the messages in the book, and the philosophies that underlie them, are positive, gentle and wholesome. But particularly, it is because of Mackesy’s gorgeous, evocative, almost abstract drawings that make up most of the 128 pages of the book. (And every single page is a little work of art.) Using pen and ink, he captures the essence of all the characters – the boy, the mole, the fox and the horse.
Mackesy’s drawings still show the outlines of the anatomy of the figures – they have not been covered up or removed to make the drawings look more sophisticated: Each line is direct, raw and accurate and with a few rough shapes he creates a whole, recognizable being.
For instance, the mole is simply a bluish pyramid-shape with white ovals for paws, and the fox is all pointy, triangular snout and blurred smudge of tail. The horse is a Da Vinci-esque reduction to the essence of arched neck, powerful head, muscled flanks and flashing legs. Sometimes a mere line or two, or a geometric shape, are all he needs to depict the essential “horse-ness” of the animal, the power, movement, intelligence and benignity. In the same way, a rough and free-flowing few lines suggesting a big head, pudgy cheeks, floppy hair and round tummy, are all Mackesy needs for the charming little boy in the story.
Above: You can see that Mackesy’s technique is classical. On the left, a drawing of a horse by Leonardo da Vinci – on the left, an illustration from the book. Mackesy is an acclaimed illustrator and artist and it is clear why. You really should take a look at his fine art and graphic art portfolios on his website. Impressive.
“He never went to art school but spent three months in America with a portrait painter where he learned about anatomy and how to deal with bed bugs.”Charlie Mackesy biography on his website, charliemackesy.com
We never see the boy’s face from the front, and he has no name, he is just “the boy”. Why do we think of him as charming when the author reveals so little about him? Because he loves the animals, and the animals love him. He seems a bit lonely and timid, and is full of questions.
This picture, below, is for me the most central and most precisely observed presentation of the relationship between the boy and the horse: the horse bends its huge head to nuzzle with its soft nose the head of the little boy, fluffing up his hair. Those of us who have worked with horses know how gentle horses can be, how delightful it is to have a horse trust you and nuzzle you like it would do with its foal.
The lack of specifics in the story forces the reader to add in their own details and suppositions: – the boy is alone, he has no home, he has no family, he is dead, he is in heaven, the animals are spirits, etc.
A few times, Mackesy’s text becomes more specific – the mole, for instance, loves cake, and would give up a lot for cake. Cake? I wondered. Well, who doesn’t love cake? Cake is nice. And so is the mole. And on one page, there is a literal stain from a tea cup on the page. The text reads; “Is it the moon?” asked the boy. “it’s a tea cup stain…” said the mole, “and where there’s tea – there’s cake.” The stain does look very much like a large yellow moon. (The book has no page numbers so I cannot say on which page this was, but it’s more or less halfway.) The fox is initially a bit wary and keeps its distance, but eventually he saves the mole from drowning – that is an actual happening in the story – and it then joins the little troupe as they wander through the fields.
The story is not set in a specific time – sometimes the surroundings are green, sometimes covered with snow. Sometimes the tree in which the boy sits is full of leaves, sometimes it is bare.
Mackesy’s text is simple, short and evocative of childhood and the inquisitive, questioning nature of small children. The text consists mostly philosophical questions and answers voiced by these characters, about home, love, friendship, hope, etc.
You could call it altogether too simplistic, or preachy. You could say that life is just not that simple – life is complicated and hard. But, the same as other famous and loved illustrated books (meant for children and adults alike), such as Winnie-The-Pooh, Guess How Much I love You, The Giving Tree, and The Velveteen Rabbit, the philosophies or moral messages that the authors depict are timeless and universally applicable. Being kind, being loving, being brave and responsible, and being grateful are things that everyone can aspire to. Like Mackesy writes in the first few pages:
“This book is for anyone, whether you are eighty or eight – I feel like I’m both sometimes.”The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy
There is a positive message in just about every page of the book, though there aren’t that many sentences. Most of what Mackesy wants to say he says with his illustrations, rather than with words, just like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry did in his book The Little Prince.
Mackesy writes in the introduction to the story;
“When I was making the book I often wondered, who on earth am I to be doing this? But as the horse says: ‘the truth is everyone is winging it.’ So I say spread your wings and follow your dreams – this book is one of mine. I hope you enjoy it and much love to you. Thankyou. Charlie”The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse, by Charlie Mackesy
He shows great skill and visual appeal in his drawings. His lines are confident and bold, his washes delicate and nuanced. When you paint or draw with an ink pen or brush, you cannot actually erase or cover up your mistakes. You can try to wash out your blooper, but it will show. Paper will make get soft and come off. Here I could see that Mackesy has not put down one wrong line.
On a few pages, the drawings are full paintings, with depth and detail – and they are so beautiful that I have wanted to tear up the book (sacrilege!!) and frame them and hang them on the wall to look at every day. Some are in colour, others, monochrome. In one, the horse has grown wings, like Pegasus or an angel. “Well we love you whether you can fly or not”, the boy says to the horse, that has stopped flying because “it made the other horses jealous”.
What to make of it
Is this timeless, placeless narrative a simple fairy-tale – or something more, the voices of the dead guiding the living? Lessons for our times? It’s whatever you make of it, I guess. If you think it’s too sweet for your taste, or that Mackesy’s language is unrefined, or that that the “voices” of the animals are unlikely and inconsistent, remember, it’s not about those aspects of formal critiquing.
That is because the book, so small in size yet so large in impact, is something that requires you to feel rather than think. You can like it without having to navel-gaze and explain why. It’s like looking at a landscape, or a painting – even though it has words. It demonstrates, as the French philosopher and writer Blaise Pascal famously wrote;
“The heart has its reasons of which reason knows not”.“Le coeur a ses raisons que la raison ne connaît point.” (Blaise Pascal, Pensées (Thoughts), 1670, ed. L. Brunschvieg, 1909, sec. 4, no. 277)
And when you read it to your children (oh, please read it to them, no matter how old they are!), it would be the ideal opportunity to explain some basics of human interaction to them. This old world is full of ugly and cruel things. Thank goodness for the respite offered by The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse.
Thank you, Mr. Mackesy. You’ve made a lovely book.
One loose end – Spoiler alert!
I wondered what the sheet music on the front and end papers of the book is. Is it a song about the boy and his animal friends? Was it specially composed for the book? I couldn’t tell because I can’t read music. But music fundis on Reddit inform me that it is Robert Schumann’s Soldatenmarsch (Soldier’s March) Op. 68, No. 2: , from his Album for the Young. They could be right. Listen to it – it sounds quite like a horse trotting along at a brisk pace. Robert Schumann composed it in 1848 for his three daughters. Album for the Young consists of a collection of 43 short works, of which the first 18 are meant to be performed by children. The second work, The Soldier’s March, is less than a minute long.
Here is a video about Charlie Mackesy crreating the book: