When I find an author’s work memorable, I tend to read, and many times re-read, everything they’ve written. In high school, I read the first chapter of William Faulkner’s debut novel, The Sound and the Fury, three times before I began to understand Benjy’s voice. Then I promptly added Faulkner to my top ten authors list.
It turns out I approach art in a similar fashion. In college, although I was an industrial engineering major, I enrolled in many liberal arts courses including, “Introduction to Art History: Renaissance and Baroque Art.” The class covered art from 1400-1750 and highlighted the works of Jan van Eyck, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Rembrandt, but when I saw Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s “Netherlandish Proverbs,” I knew (like Faulkner) I would be spending some quality time with Bruegel. What I didn’t know is that, decades later, “Netherlandish Proverbs” would inspire me to write the fantasy series—The Plight of the Plexus. Proverbs makes a bigger splash in Book 2: The Amalgamators’ Trial. For Book 1: The Primal Key, I chose to highlight Bruegel’s Kinderspiele. If you made it past page two in The Primal Key, you already know Kinderspiele is not a safe work of art to admire for too long.
From chapter one you learn Anne Clarke finds journals her father (a man she’s never met) wrote years before she was born. Dad had a healthy respect for Kinderspiele and he wrote an entire journal about the painting. When Anne reads his journal entitled, Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s Child’s Play: Dangers Lurking in the Alleyway, she learns that once you enter one of Bruegel’s living paintings you can’t interact or be touched by any people, animals, even insects without the risk of becoming a permanent part of the composition. In the journal, Anne’s father marks a path—a possible way through the maze of games.
Black = Father’s path; Purple = Anne’s diversion
In Chapter 19, Anne is forced to traverse the chaos of Kinderspiele to reach her grandmother. Before writing this chapter, I researched each of the games. I read many scholarly books and articles dissecting the painting. Most, as you would expect, provided a view on what each game depicted, Bruegel’s commentary on society and his use of symbolism, as well as making comparisons to his other works. Of course, none of these resources discussed what might happen if these children could actually move.
To select Anne’s father’s path, I mapped the potential movement in the painting and then imagined the timing that Anne would need to use to avoid touching anyone.
Anne’s entrance into the painting goes smoothly, but, as you would expect, her trip doesn’t progress as planned—where would be the fun in that? Anne lands in front of the girl selling brick dust, but quickly presses against the wall to avoid a boy and a girl whizzing by, rolling wooden hoops with sticks. She steps into the street, carefully avoiding a group of boys, rough-housing.
(1) A girl playing shop. She sells brick dust, a common red pigment ingredient at the time.
(2) Hoop rolling is an ancient pastime. Even kids in ancient Greece in 470 BC were known to enjoy this game.
(3) The group of rough-housing boys are probably playing buck-buck. Although there are different versions of this game, given the boy’s raised hand, I believe he’s playing “Buck Buck, how many horns are up,” referring to the number of fingers he has up. The boy, leaning over nearest the wall would be required to guess the correct number to get his turn to be on top.
Next Anne encounters a girl blowing into a pig’s bladder in an attempt to make a ball or balloon. Even though Anne read about this game in Dad’s journal, watching the girl puffing away gives her a chill. Anne dodges two boys rolling on a large barrel and stops short as a game of leapfrog bounces in front of her. She watches in horror as the leap-frogger lands near six kids. They grab his arms and legs, and swing him over a wooden beam.
(4) The girl is using a pig’s bladder to make a balloon. There is another pig’s bladder in this painting. In the upper left section, in the river, a boy uses a pig’s bladder as a floatie.(5) Two boys riding a barrel trying to roll each other off.
(7) A boy is lifted by his arms and legs and swung over a beam.
Anne turns away to scan the crowded street. Kids swarm in every direction. Beyond the sea of children, a river and country fields look inviting. Laughter flows from the games near the river, while the games played in the city streets cause yells, shouts, and tears. Anne knows the path to Grandmother is up the street, but the allure of the river enchants her. She takes a step toward the water, but a tug-of-war match abruptly shifts direction, toward her. She jumps back to avoid the boy who topples near her feet. I almost blew it, Anne realizes. Stay on the path, she reminds herself. She dashes between the leap-froggers, intending to reach a boy on stilts, but a group of boys and girls throw their hats at her head. She slides face first onto the ground to avoid them. Anne crawls, then scrambles, to a shop on the right side of the street — the wrong side, according to Dad’s map.
(8) In this case, tug-of-war combined with a piggy-back-rides resembles a game many know as chicken-fight.
(9) The boy on stilts leads a safe path up the road, but if you look up to his left, the boy walking on high stilts looks a little shaky.
(10) A group of kids toss hats. Although there are several different interpretations of this game, I imagined the object was to see which black hat would land closest to the red hat (similar to bocce ball or horse shoes).
In front of Anne, the road bustles; kids bowl, wrestle, spin in circles and chase each other. She locates the next stop on Dad’s path, the hide-and-seek game across the street. In the middle of the commotion, Anne notices kids playing a quiet game of marbles and hurries toward them. Two kids holding a chain cross her path. “Chain the devil! Chain all the devils!” they yell. The kids near them scream and run away. In seconds, the chain will hit Anne’s stomach. She twists to her right and sprints past the marble players just before the chain wielders topple them to the ground. A gap opens, and Anne darts up the road to the alleyway.
(11) Bowling has been around for centuries, some believe it may have been played in ancient Egypt.
(12) Two boys wrestling. Take a look at the woman in the window above them. I hope that’s just water in her bucket.
(13) Playing marbles.
(14) This is another game with several interpretations. I chose, “Chain the Devil,” as it best fit Anne’s inner feelings at this point in the story.
I won’t tell you what dangers Anne finds lurking in the alleyway (you will have to read the book to find out), but it relates to the boy and chain of kids behind him. After they rush past Anne, they plow onto the main street, cutting through the chain-the-devil players, and a brawl erupts. Anne uses the diversion to reach the hide-and-seek game safely. The next games are less fierce. Kids play “who has the ball?” and give piggyback rides. There is even a group singing door-to-door. As Anne nears the bonfire, she hears the burning wood crackling. Bright-colored embers shoot into the air as the boys whoop with joy. Anne reaches her destination, but Grandmother is not by the bonfire. To find out what happens next, pick up a copy of The Primal Key, Book 1 in The Plight of the Plexus Series.
(16) Follow the leader.
(17) Who has the ball.
(18) Piggyback rides.
(19) Caroling or singing door-to-door.
(20) Building a bonfire.
“Children’s Games” image is in the public domain. Source: Google Art Project. CQEeZWQPOI2Yjg at Google Cultural Institute