Exhibit / March 13, 2019
Object Name: Henry’s Quest
Maker and Year: Graham Oakley, Macmillan Children’s Books, 1986
Object Type: Book
Description: (Richard McKenna)
Four years after the release of Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows, children in the British Isles were treated to another misleadingly cheerful-looking jaunt through a postlapsarian landscape in Graham Oakley’s 1986 book Henry’s Quest. I’ve spoken elsewhere about the extent to which the British culture of the 1970s and ’80s seemed determined to inculcate feelings of dread and hopelessness in young people, but with its superficially light-hearted tone, Henry’s Quest took a different approach.
The book’s hero is Henry, a simple shepherd with an education derived from a book of incomplete fairy tales, who sets out on a quest to find a mythical substance known as petrol, which the local potentate—himself self-educated through reading King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table—has set as the price for his daughter’s hand. Though the illustrations initially suggest a rural medieval setting, it soon becomes clear that Henry’s Quest actually takes place in the future: a future when, for some unspecified reason, modern society has collapsed and humanity is now living in the ruins of today (well, of 1986), which it has adapted as well as it can to its new needs. Henry’s journey takes him past overgrown refineries, repurposed airliners, and gangs of Mad Max-esque highwaymen until he reaches the big city, a nightmarish hellscape where the locals are kept docile with booze and discos while a racketeering dictator imposes his rule through a brutal militarized police force as he works to rediscover the secrets of gunpowder. After the petrol is found in a US bunker, the book concludes with a nominally happy ending that sees Henry and the princess marry, but the implication is that Henry’s idyll is safe only until the vicious empire in the city gets its act together and starts exporting its grim brand of government.
Children’s book writer and illustrator Oakley was best known in Britain for the much-loved series of books he produced about the adventures of the mice inhabiting a village church. With the genteel, cozy worldview they traffic in, the Church Mice books (natch) are the kind of thing that gets called “quintessentially English,” which makes Oakley’s hard left-turn into agrarian dystopias in Henry’s Quest come as a bit of a bolt from the blue. Presumably, under the patina of avuncular vicars and gentle British slapstick, Oakley was as worried by the nuclear zeitgeist as the rest of us—and Henry’s Quest suggests he had probably read Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (1980) too.
Though framed in the dynamics of medieval romance, Henry’s Quest proves to be a surprisingly clear-eyed look at the mechanics behind power, as well as a savvy deconstruction of the way England views itself: less through rose-tinted spectacles than through a massive pair of telescopes with the lenses painted cherry red. The country has been a willing victim of its own PR machine since the Middle Ages, and this self-image the populace has been peddled—of a pragmatic, dutiful people inhabiting a pastoral idyll, cobbled together from a romanticized past and WWII propaganda in a desperate attempt to convince a fragmenting country of its unity—has always been one of the establishment’s most powerful tools for keeping the locals distracted and docile. The quixotic suit of armor that Henry assembles for himself from national detritus provides a perfect précis of this notional Englishman: with his cricket pads representing bucolic fair play, a WWII Air Raid Precautions helmet to evoke the Blitz spirit, the black umbrella of the city gent, the rugger shirt and a sheepskin to suggest medieval salt-of-the-earth-ness, Henry is—intentionally or not—a perfect skewering of a few centuries of English bullshit.
Like Noah’s Castle before it, Henry’s Quest feels especially pertinent in 2019, when the cynical manipulation of these symbols is causing them to metastasize into something that feels as though it might be definitive. Henry’s Quest‘s depiction of England as a nation living in the ruins of its past, and thus ill-prepared to stop a gang of bellicose, unscrupulous grifters from taking it over, feels unpleasantly pertinent, despite it being couched in a visual language more readily associated with adorable church mice.