CM . . .
. Volume IX Number 6. . . . November 15, 2002
"The man who was a slave gazed at this fire. He was naked and surrounded by snow and ice, but he was no longer freezing. The fire in the darkness, the fire that burned for him, kept him warm."
Working day and night for a merciless master, a slave man becomes ill. Finally, the slave begs his master for his freedom. The master agrees to grant his freedom if the man can survive a night on a mountain top without food, fire, clothes, shelter, or help of any kind. The slave seeks the counsel of a wise old man, who agrees to help the man under the conditions that the master has specified. Both of the men climb separate mountains. Naked and alone, the slave watches the neighboring mountain where his friend has lit a fire. The next morning the slave returns to an enraged master, claims his freedom, and starts off on a new life.
The retelling of this traditional Ethiopian folk tale reminds us of the basics of human decency and kindness and the lack, thereof. The illustrations accentuate the master's avarice and merciless nature. VandenBroeck uses what appear to be water colours to paint an obese master, well clothed, and sitting on a stone throne-like chair. Scowling at the slave, the master's foot is pressed down on a dog which appears to be growling and unable to get free.
In contrast, the slave's emaciated frame appears parched and cracked. His eyes have a dull appearance, and his shoulders are slumped in defeat. The slave's pants are tied to his waist with a rope. Significantly, there are purplish colors surrounding and emanating from the slave, colors which could represent the life force leaving his body. Indeed, the text of this page implies that the slave may not survive.
One day he could no longer stand his life. He went to his master and said, "I have been your slave for such a long time. You have often promised me freedom. Tell me, what can I do to be free at last?
VandenBroeck also vividly portrays the slave's difficult climb up the mountain face which is steep and without crevices for grips or foot holds. However, the friend's mountain, while steep, has these footholds to help him. Viewers of these illustrations may bring to them many of their own interpretations; however, it would appear to this reviewer that the mountain represents the individual's mental health. The slave "could no longer stand his life," and his climb to the mountain top was difficult and treacherous. The optimistic and kind friend is able to see the opportunities of the situation.
As the night progresses, the slave's eyes are pictured as tired and sleepy, but the fire keeps the slave's hope alive. When the slave returns to claim his freedom, there is light in his eyes. His frame is not bent in defeat, and he seems to be taking some of the life force from his shocked and angry master.
The final illustration shows the naked former slave and the master's former pets, a monkey and a dog, leaving the master. They appear to be walking over a frozen mountain lake into the warmth of the sun. As a reader, one is left with a sense of peace and hope. "The man who had survived the long cold night was no longer a slave. He was now a free man. And so he went." The emotions and implications of the story are, perhaps, more imbedded in the illustrations of the story than they are in the text. Without the illustration on the final page, the reader would not be able to sense the depth of the slave's freedom. By picturing the monkey and the dog also leaving the master, the reader has a deeper sense of how truly cruel the master was. Other beings agreed with the slave's assessment of the situation, and they, too, sought freedom.
Living through great despair can be a life-giving experience. Individuals that survive such despair often are stronger and more confident. They have faced difficult situations, learned from them, and survive to thrive. Often, however, they must go through the difficult periods of life alone. Those that seek to help them can only do so from afar. They light the fires and keep them burning. They encourage and keep hope. They walk with them in the experience, but not through it. The Fire is a story that imparts hope. It is also a story that demonstrates how to give hope, believe in, and sustain others.
In the end, the master is the slave. He is without hope. His eyes are shocked and, perhaps, terrified at being left alone without even his pets for companionship. No one comes to his aide in a world that is devoid of colour or warmth.
This book has universal appeal. It could be read to young children to explain about feelings. Adults might want to use it as a meditative book to examine their own lives.
Denise Weir is a library consultant with Manitoba Culture, Heritage and Tourism, Public Library Services.
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