Silas and the Black Mare
By Anna Karlskov Skyggebjerg, author, 2006
The boy with the magic flute
We find ourselves in an unknown country in the distant past, where the young lad Silas comes drifting down a river in a primitive boat. Silas’s passage seems peaceful enough but on the banks of the river horse trader Bartolin is contemplating stealing the boat. But Bartolin is totally unaware of the strength of the craft’s almost invisible passenger. It is the irony of fate that it is Silas who manages to outwit the horse trader, and not the other way round. His encounter with the boy ends up costing Bartolin a black filly.
Silas has fled from his mother because he refuses to go along with her plans for the future. The sail down the river is the beginning of a dramatic journey, in which among other exploits, he saves the children Maria and Ben Godik from the miserable conditions under which they live. Silas is endowed with a special talent, namely the ability to play on a magic flute, which has the capacity to turn animals and humans mad. The flute is his peaceful weapon against those adults who hit their children and order them around.
Belief in children
The story shows a powerful belief in the child. Silas represents hope in a world in which children are repressed. He is able to revolt against the grown- ups, despite the fact that he is nearly always on the run. The story has a symbolic quality, awakening almost biblical associations. Silas in the boat is reminiscent of Moses, who arrives on the scene sailing in a basket in the Old Testament. Children are regarded as competent readers, who are fully capable of grasping the book’s message: The fact is that children are worthy human beings in possession of an intact sense of responsibility.
New children’s literature
Silas and the Black Mare marked the début of Cecil Boedker (born 1927) as a children’s writer. Before that she had published poems and novels for an adult audience. The book is epoch-making in both her authorship and in Danish children’s literature. It won the Danish Academy’s children’s book competition as well as attaining overwhelming popularity among readers. Today you can buy all the Silas books (12 volumes) in a handsome bound edition.
Silas and the Black Mare appeared in the same year as Ole Lund Kirkegaard’s Little Virgil (Lille Virgil) and Benny Andersen’s The Snoevs and Eigil and the Cat in the Bag (Snoevsen og Eigil og Katten i saekken). These books show a new orientation in children’s literature, in which the author speaks to the child at eye height and in an artistically formulated language.
Did you know?
Cecil Bødker founded the "Silas Prize" in 1999, which is awarded by the Danish Academy every two years. Along with the honor of being a significant children's book author, a check of 100,000 kroner follows. Recipients of the Silas Prize are so far: Bjarne Reuter (2001), Peter Mouritzen (2003), Bent Haller (2005), Flemming Quist Møller (2007), Kim Fupz Aakeson (2009), Jakob Martin Strid (2013) and Cecilie Eken ( 2017).
The Committee's justification
By the Committee for Literature, 2006
“He sailed down the river in a very small, broad-nosed boat, and he did not sail sitting up like others, did not use the oars, but let the boat move as it wanted.” This is how Silas arrives in the book, fleeing his mother, a tightrope walker, and her partner, the sword swallower, who kicks him with his bare foot, and who, in a grotesque scene, gets the sword stuck in his throat when the boy plays the flute. The reader is drawn into a universe that cannot be fixed in time or space. The differences between good and bad and between adults and children are drawn starkly. The tension is not only heightened by the magic flute, but also by a style that suggests more than it paints. The exciting action is not random, but derived from Silas’ courageous and stubborn efforts to be taken seriously in adult society, which robs him of the black mare he won with his skill.
This book begins the series, which ended in 2001 with Silas – The Time of Consolation, in which the protagonist becomes a father to Ania and retells the tales he has experience to the ageing mother, Anina. We never find out who the father is, but Silas shines through all 14 volumes with his desire for freedom and natural constraints in a series of good deeds to rebuild a solidary society on Sebastian mountain for the vulnerable and those who don’t fit in. The harsh struggle for bread is depicted along the way without sentimentality, as part of a modern myth on tolerance for people who are different.