Mark Twain's rediscovered fairy tale

NEW YORK • One night nearly 140 years ago, Samuel Clemens told his young daughters Clara and Susie a bedtime story about a poor boy who eats a magic flower that gives him the ability to talk to animals.

Storytelling was a nightly ritual in the Clemens home. But something about this particular tale must have stuck with Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, because he decided to jot down notes about it.

The story might have ended there, lost to history. But decades later, scholar John Bird was searching the Twain archives at the University of California, Berkeley, when he came across the notes for the story, which Twain titled Oleomargarine.

Bird was astonished to find a richly imagined fable, in Twain's inimitable voice. He and other scholars believe it may be the only written remnant of a children's fairy tale from Twain, though he told his daughters stories constantly.

Philip Stead (with his wife Erin). PHOTO: NYTIMES

It is impossible to know why Twain did not finish the tale or if he ever intended it for a wider audience. Now, more than a century after Twain dreamt it up, Oleomargarine has taken on a strange new afterlife.

After consulting a few other scholars, Bird brought the text to the attention of the Mark Twain House and Museum in Hartford, which sold it to Doubleday Books for Young Readers.

This autumn, Doubleday will release The Purloining Of Prince Oleomargarine, an expanded version of the story that was fleshed out and reimagined by the children's book author-and-illustrator team of Philip and Erin Stead.

From Twain's spare urtext, the Steads created a 152-page illustrated story featuring talking animals, giants, dragons, a kidnapped prince and a wicked king.

While the original work has a timeless quality, the Steads added a postmodern twist: Twain himself makes an appearance in the book, to argue with the author, Philip Stead, about the direction the story takes.

Finishing a partial manuscript by one of the country's most revered writers was terrifying at times, the Steads said.

"We said yes before our brains could tell us it was a terrible idea and we would never be able to do it," Stead said in a telephone interview from the couple's home studio in northern Michigan.

Erin Stead, who did the illustrations, said they were aware of the creative risks involved in taking on the work of such a towering literary figure.

We said yes before our brains could tell us it was a terrible idea and we would never be able to do it.

PHILIP STEAD, the author-and- illustrator team behind children's book The Purloining Of Prince Oleomargarine. The tale was created from Mark Twain's notes about a boy who could talk to animals after eating a magic flower.

"We both just tried to approach the text respectfully and with as much reverence as possible," she said. "No one's qualified to write for Mark Twain."

Twain's story represents a new genre for him as he never published fiction for very young children, apart from his translation of a German fable.

As Twain describes in his journals, his daughters constantly demanded he make up stories on the spot. They often gave him an image from a magazine or another visual prompt to use as inspiration.

"They were a difficult and exacting audience - those little creatures," he wrote of his daughters in his journal. "The stories had to be absolutely original and fresh."

Like an artefact from a lost civilisation, Oleomargarine gives a tantalising glimpse of the wild, ephemeral tales that Twain spontaneously created for his daughters each night, in the period when he was working on Adventures Of Huckleberry Finn.

Scholars have not found any written remnants of those stories, apart from Oleomargarine, which suggests Twain thought it might hold lasting appeal for a wider audience.

The manuscript was just 16 handwritten pages. It opens as a poor boy is given a magic seed, which grows into a flower. He eats it and discovers he can understand animals.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 23, 2017, with the headline 'Mark Twain's rediscovered fairy tale'. Print Edition | Subscribe