John Gardner's variations on fairy tales have been marked by a polished and fanciful cleverness, but these unpretentiously witty rhymes are an altogether more genuine pleasure. Gardner's lines and meters are as ragged as the stock representations drawn by members of his family—but looser and more spontaneously playful. When he promises morals such as the medieval bestiaries provided, you know they won't be straight; but Gardner's are not the spoofy addenda of a latter-day Belloc. (Witness "The Cobra" whose ever-acquiescent victims learn too late that "They might as well have told the truth.") He makes his share of comparisons to human behavior, as with the baboon's alleged habit of dropping rocks over cliffs even though his attacker might be above and behind him: ". . . Clearly this strategy doesn't always pay./ But why change a method you've got down pat?" Elsewhere his variously edifying and delighting creatures include a realistic armadillo (". . . For unlike people who are more complex/ He prays for nothing but what he expects"), a sensitive buzzard (who broods because ". . . a Buzzard's like anyone else in that/ He doesn't like being shuddered at"), a deceptively graceful swan (actually "she's paddling like crazy"), and a pesky, anachronistic possum to whom—after the Son argues that "he's got to go"—God whispers, "Lie down. Play dead." Sly, sparkling fun.
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