In this illustrated video, Neil Gaiman reads Instructions, a remarkable little story that came out a few years ago (and which I recently discovered at Abrian C Illustration Blog.) It’s a children’s book told in the form of instructions for entering a fairy world. The story is implied by the instructions Gaiman delivers, and it’s full of allusions to various fairy tales. As Gaiman reads, Charles Vess’s evocative illustrations take shape from rough form to finished product.
By framing the story as a set of instructions, each line implies a larger narrative, as if other stories and entire worlds are waiting for you around each corner. Gaiman skilfully implies much of the story rather than telling it, and he uses our existing knowledge of fairy stories and motifs to flesh out his spare narrative. For example:
Beneath a twisted oak sits an old woman. She may ask for something. Give it to her. She will point the way to the castle. Inside it are three princesses. Do not trust the youngest.
Walk on. In the clearing beyond the castle the twelve months sit about a fire warming their feet, exchanging tales. They may do favors for you, if you are polite.
It’s this economy of language and narrative that impresses me most. In a previous post I wrote of a dream in which I found rooms that were larger inside than they were outside.
Instructions is like that. It’s a much, much larger story than so few lines of text ought to be able to contain.