The Harper Boy, and How He Began

A few nights ago, during a family game of Citadels, I said, “Now I’m going to spend all my gold and build a library.”

My mother said, “That’s just like you!”

My own harper boy, Vanya.

One of the September projects I am undertaking is to sort, weed, and organize my personal library, so I can finally get all my favorite books out of boxes onto my shelves. In the process, I’ve been finding a lot of old treasures. Most interestingly, I found some forgotten evidence of how my conception of the wandering Harper Boy began. These books (and song) clearly had a direct influence on my creation of Vanya, the harper boy of Wanderlust, and on the formation of my own life-dreams as well.

First, Adam of The Road by Elizabeth Janet Gray, and illustrated by Robert Lawson (pictured cover by Neil Truscott).

It’s all there in that lushly illustrated cover: the traveling Boy with his Harp (and dog!). Please note that the harp is strung incorrectly; it’s the only thing wrong with an otherwise lovely cover. Adam of the Road is a medieval adventure story about a boy who loses his minstrel father and his dog and must find his way through the dangers of medieval England alone. I’ve penciled the year 2001 inside the cover, alongside my name, so I read this book over ten years ago, in about sixth grade. Given that, the clarity with which I remember parts of it is surprising. Late in the book Adam reunites with a close friend. They find each other during a church service, however, and must contain their joy, keeping it close and secret and spoken only by their jostled elbows and shared smiles, until the service is over. I just re-read that scene, and it is so brief, barely half a page! It left such a large impression on me regardless; it’s cool how memory works that way. I also remember strongly the deep pain of loss when Adam’s harp is stolen. I remember the loss of the harp, and not the loss of the dog, though Adam himself cared more about the latter. At any rate, the dog is recovered, and the harp is not. At the end of the book Adam is offered a place to stay and become a scholar, but he says, “No, thank you. I am a minstrel. I want to be on the road (Gray, 320).

Next, a picture book: The Minstrel and The Dragon Pup by Rosemary Sutcliff and illustrated by Emma Chichester Clark.

Again, I barely need to say it. It’s all there in the cover: The slight-figured blonde young man walking through a green world with a harp. (And a dragon; how cool!) This is a charming little book, well-illustrated and containing more words than the average picture book. I first encountered it as an excerpt in a Cricket magazine, and happily found the entire book in hardcover at a discount store not long after (I think this was Middle School). The book is all about the Minstrel and his Dragon, of course, but it’s set within the archetype of the wandering minstrel, the harper who never stays in the same place for more than a few days. As a further parallel to Vanya, this minstrel even makes a sort of magic with his harp to gain the king’s trust at the end. Reunited with his dragon, he says, “Now we’re going home. Home to the open road, you and I” (Sutcliffe, 42).

There are a few other books that honed my image of the wandering harper, notably The Riddlemaster Trilogy by Patricia McKillip (which I somehow never quite finished, even though I loved it) and even Tokien’s The Hobbit, where Thorin Oakenshield is brought a harp that first night in Bag End when the dwarves weave a magic Far o’er the misty mountains cold…  Yet I think the third largest formative influence in my conception of the Harper Boy, the conception that led to my own Vanya, is the song The Minstrel Boy, written by Thomas Moore (full lyrics and some history here). The version I knew was by the celtic rock band Enter The Haggis.

The Minstrel boy to the war has gone

In the ranks of Death you will find him

His father’s sword he hath girded on

and his wild harp slung behind him.

The Minstrel boy has a ‘wild harp’ slung on his back, a harp he has taken to war, which further cements the image of a boy and his harp as fearless travelers. This song, which I discovered in early high school, is where the boy and his harp became distinctly Irish, and also where they became noble and tragic. The minstrel falls, and before he dies he “tears asunder” the chords of his harp, so that it will “never sound in slavery.” This, perhaps, is where Vanya acquired the haunting sadness that runs deep in his bones.

Adam of the Road, The Minstrel and the Dragon Pup, and The Minstrel Boy. All of these contributed to my conception of the Harper Boy archetype, and subconsciously led to the creation of Vanya, my own darling Harper Boy. The harp itself is a very feminine object (I can share my essay that touches on the erotic connection between a man and his harp at a later date), and a woman playing a classical harp is an archetype of grace and sophistication. The woman at her harp is an aristocratic image (like this still from Disney’s The Artistocats), and it is a stationary image. The woman and her harp sit in the parlor, to please and be worshiped by the society and menfolk around her. But a boy with a harp? He slings his wild harp on his back, and he travels the world. If (when? When) I learn to play the Celtic harp, I will, of course, be a foxy harper lady—yet I want to embody the archetype of the traveling harper, of the Harper Boy. The dream breaks down somewhat when I consider the logistics of carrying a harp on my back in addition to a pack containing my laptop and other life necessities, but I’m not convinced it’s impossible. Vanya is my darling boy, and I say that like a mother; a title I claim because I crave, so badly, through my work and words, to give him life. He is the culmination of all the influences that created my myth of the Harper Boy, but he is also that lost and wanting part of me that needs to strike out, brave and wild, and fill my beating heart with faraway skies and the music of distant roads. It’s a romantic notion, but long-term traveling, or any traveling, is a thing people do, a real thing I can aspire to and plan towards. And if my inspiration is partially fueled by the idea of the wandering minstrel, by that boy and his harp, who will blame me? We all come from somewhere and, as much as he comes from the influences I’ve listed, Vanya also comes from me, and wherever I go, whether I learn to harp or not, I’ll carry him too.

* * *

Leave a comment, if you like. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this post. Have you had any similar experiences, where you didn’t realize what books or songs influenced you until you found them again later on? What characters and archetypes have informed your life? Does my archetype of the Harper Boy agree with your own mythology?

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  1. Let’s Stop Writing Lazy « Grace Makley
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