In empire-set fiction, a classic set-up for European folks living in exotic climes is to have the main characters be missionaries. Missionaries, by their very nature, go out into the wilds, spreading their own brand of Western interference exactly where it’s not wanted. In King of the Cloud Forests, the protagonist Ashley (oddly, Americans still insist on saddling male children with this most effeminate of names) is the son of a Christian missionary in a city in western China in the nineteen-thirties.
I read this book as a child (well, most of it) and it always stuck with me as being extremely odd. Though I never finished it, it lingered in my memory as that book with the yetis. An 80’s book, it’s considered a bit of a minor classic in children’s literature, and I originally found it in my school library, but because it takes place in a rather serious and grim time and place, it was never going to be the kind of thing I would have chosen to read as a child (I hated historical fiction then, and only wanted to read about the future and fantastic alien worlds), but I ploughed through because I knew that there was going to be some cryptozoological element. But I was to be somewhat disappointed…
Before I go any further, I’d like to note that the classic, haunting cover remembered from my childhood in which a mysteriously-shrouded figure makes its way through a howling snowstorm has been replaced in the Egmont Press edition by a CGI monstrosity. A horrible font, cheesy-as-feck ‘spooky staring eyes’ and a misshapen reject from a PS1 game wandering among the Himalayas made me almost not want to open the book. You may be ‘committed to ethical publishing’, Egmont, but Christ, get your act together regarding covers.
Anyway, the story opens with Ashley (heh heh) living a relaxed life with his father, his friends and a Himalayan helper named Uncle Sung. Reading the book now, I’m impressed at how the religious element is handled. Ashley’s father is a good man who’s devoted to his faith and helping others. Too often nowadays in all kinds of fiction, the religious character is a figure to pity or mock. But the religious debates that are very briefly touched on (it is a children’s book) raise unsettling questions about the possible conflict between faithfully observing religion and being a truly intelligent and moral person. It’s played very subtly- so subtly that I doubt even religious folk would find anything objectionable- but there’s just enough there to leave the door open for debate in the mind of an intelligent child reader (it obviously flew over my pre-teen head). I like the idea that Ashley’s father is still a good man even though his own worldview may not necessarily be very realistic. He’s also not portrayed as being any better or worse than the Buddhist Uncle Sung. Sung himself is something of a realist, remaining cynical about aspects of even his own religion. None of this is idle background, either; Morpurgo is working up to something big.
Then the Japanese invade. Reading his book the first time around is almost certainly the earliest memory I have of being aware of this terrible conflict. There’s no real detail about the war or why it’s happening, and young readers are spared any mention about the many, many Japanese war atrocities committed. Instead, the war is played as a plot-device to get Ashley and Uncle Sung to leave the city and head into the Himalayas, bound for Tibet and ultimately British India, where Ashley will get a boat to England.
The hardships of their journey also stuck with me for many years. It felt like an enormous, epic quest equal to The Hobbit. The two travel across plains and high into the snow-covered mountains. The landscape is vast and cruel, the hardships broken only by rest at the occasional house or monastery. Also introduced to me by this book was the idea of Tibet as being a seriously mystical place- Ashley and Sung encounter superstitious locals, including a llama who tells Ashley’s fortune. He claims that Ashley will be a ‘king of the cloud forests.’ Sung merely scoffs. They also come across legends of the yeti, the wildman who supposedly inhabit the mountains.
The friendship between the two travellers grows until, almost unbearably, Sung fails to return from a trip to gather supplies during a snow storm. Ashley holes up in a hut, waiting for Sung’s return. Instead, he gets a very different kind of visitor…
Ashley gets taken in by a tribe of yetis, and this is where it all went south for me as a child. I remember losing interest as soon as the beasts were revealed to be a lovable, caring bunch of critters. I wanted my crypto-creatures to remain mysterious, dammit! I never have had time for the ‘noble savage’ plot, and still find it boring today.
Anyway, Ashley has a lovely time living with the yetis, and over time he comes to know them all, giving them token cave-man type names (you know the kind of thing: One-Eye, Big-Leg, No-Face, etc). True to the noble savage stereotype, they know no anger or selfishness, and live in perfect harmony with their surroundings. He stays with them for almost a year until he realised that they pretty much worship him, and after their devotion causes a disaster to the tribe, he knows that he can no longer remain as a false God; he must leave. Ah, now it becomes obvious what all that religious sub-text was for earlier! It’s subtler than I’m making it sound, and Morpurgo definitely deserves credit for getting his point across naturally without any overt God-bashing.
I loved the scene where Ashley leaves the tribe during a goat-raid on a monastery. His first contact with humans in a year does not go well, and he realises that he will probably never feel the same towards his fellow man (or woman? The mind boggles) again. And to his credit, the author allows this trait to persist without sugar-coating it: Ashley is allowed to grow up as a somewhat isolated boy who, true to his experiences, never quite fits in and dreams of someday returning to his mountain idyll.
There’s also an odd reversal when Ashley meets a man who has come to wonder if the yetis are after all not a step above mankind, given that they have managed to live a ‘better’ lifestyle than we do and exist in a sort or unspoiled garden of Eden, thereby putting them on a sort of God-like pedestal. Even though the book finishes on a note of aching loss for this departed ‘paradise’, the subtext is clearly that revering anyone as a perfect being, and surrendering reason to such worship, is an act of folly.
I would certainly recommend King of the Cloud Forests for anyone who’s interested in challenging their children (or themselves) with a haunting story that raises some uncomfortable questions, and provides no easy answers.