• Joe Pace

Favorite Fictional Characters, #29: The Old Man With The Ladder


Troublesome child

One of my absolute favorite children's books, both as a boy myself and as a parent reading to my own kids, is Tikki Tikki Tembo. It's gorgeously illustrated, with an exotic, ethereal quality. The brothers, though apparently from long ago in medieval China, are universally recognizable in their nuanced relationship of love and rivalry. I think my adoration for this story originated with the younger brother, Chang. As a second son myself, I was able to identify with his struggle to compete with his older sibling for parental notice and affection, indeed for identity at all. His name has five letters, while his brother's has fifty. As if this wasn't commentary enough, the honored brother's name means "the most wonderful thing in the whole wide world" while Chang's means "little or nothing". Ouch. In the end, however, Chang's heroic persistence carries the day.

But even as a youngster, I was drawn to the character of the Old Man With The Ladder. I was never sure - I remain unsure to this day - whether he's an old guy who happens to have a ladder, or if, as the use of capitals suggests, he fills an ordained role in this mountainside community. Where children regularly seem to fall into the deep well, it may be that Old Man With The Ladder is a sinecure, a job similar to the Hog Reeve or Beadle in Middle Ages European villages. Even in modern New England towns we see vestiges of these roles, with elected posts of Fence Viewer and the wonderfully evocative Measurer of Wood and Bark. He clearly seems still robust despite his age, capable of running with a long ladder, fetching up children from the well, and performing adept CPR. I've concluded that The Old Man With The Ladder is an honored post, maybe set aside as a comfortable yet relevant retirement for a well-regarded elder, perhaps a war veteran.

That said, my favorite page in this book occurs when Chang comes seeking the Old Man's aid for his long-named brother. Chang happens to find the Old Man daydreaming, which I imagine isn't uncommon when you spend the bulk of your time sitting under a tree in the warm sun, sniffing flowers and watching butterflies. Awoken by Chang, the Old Man is grumpy, because he was dreaming of his youth, a time of "glittering gateways and jeweled blossoms". It's a surprisingly layered piece of characterization for an otherwise fairly straightforward children's fable, and a deft piece of writing. There's more to the Old Man than we will ever know, a story of his own only hinted at. In one of the more poignant lines in all literature, he says, wistfully, "If I close my eyes, perhaps I will return." He knows it's not true. He knows his youth is only a memory, a dream, and he sets the dreaming aside to go and save a child. The older I get, the less I'm Chang and the more I'm The Old Man With The Ladder, looking back on glittering gateways and jeweled blossoms, never to be known again.

Plus, he has an awesome beard.

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