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Twist in the tale: Why Margaret Mahy changed the end of her classic debut

Margaret Mahy. Photo/Jane Ussher/Listener

The two different endings of the beloved A Lion in the Meadow still provoke debate. So which is better, the 1969 original or the later, kinder one?

Male lions live for 10 to 15 years, longer in captivity. Fifty years is definitely stretching it. But the big, whiskery, apple-eating lion that took up residence in our literary landscape half a century ago shows no sign of fading from his flower-filled field.

A Lion in the Meadow, by Margaret Mahy, tells the story of a little boy whose mother disbelieves not only her son’s account of a lion loafing around in the meadow outside their house but also her own story of a dragon in a matchbox that, she said, would chase the lion away. Both turn out to be true. First appearing in the School Journal in 1965, the story flowed out quite effortlessly: “It was like taking a running jump,” Mahy told Deborah Shepard in Her Life’s Work.

In 1968, Sarah Chockla Gross, a reader for publisher Franklin Watts, saw the story in a display of school publications in Long Island, New York. She alerted publisher Helen Hoke Watts, who promptly wrote to Mahy, then a solo mother of two working at the School Library Service in Christchurch, offered her a $1000 advance and jumped on a plane to far-flung New Zealand.

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The book, co-published in 1969 by JM Dent & Sons in the UK, has all the elements of a classic Mahy tale: a close family relationship, a free-thinking child, the insistence of the magical, the scary and the benign within the everyday. At the end of the book, the dragon remains contentedly in the other meadow “and nobody minded”. The book won the Esther Glen Award and was one of the 10 works chosen to accompany Mahy’s successful nomination for the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Award.

To mark its 50th anniversary, Hachette has released a new edition of the book as well as a Māori language version, He Raiona i roto i ngā Otaota, and announced the new Margaret Mahy Illustration Prize for an unpublished New Zealand-based artist to reillustrate Mahy’s 1971 book The Boy with Two Shadows.

But A Lion in the Meadow is a complex story, more complex, she told biographer Tessa Duder, “than I could even have imagined at the time I was so impulsively writing it”. At its heart is the struggle between reality and the power of the imagination. “The child in the story successfully does what I had never been able to do,” she explained at the inaugural Storylines Margaret Mahy Medal and Lecture Award in 1991, “pulling an image from imagination into pragmatic everyday life where it achieves an established reality … It [the lion] is real, well, real enough.”

There were concerns. First, the lion appears in a meadow, not a New Zealand paddock. But, as Mahy told Shepard, the story was inspired by her time spent on a friend’s rural property north of Wellington, which backed on to a field known as “the meadow”. And the non-specific settings of her stories undoubtedly helped their international success.

More contentious was the ending. In the original version, the mother “never ever made up a story again” – a penalty, Mahy told the Listener in 2006, for doubting the power of the imagination. “The mother was being patronising. She was telling a story she didn’t believe in, so the story struck back.” And she had seen the lion rush inside – as she told Duder, “The mother never made up a story again because she had seen the lion, and she kept on seeing it.”

When the book was reissued in 1986, the swirling 60s pinks and oranges by English illustrator Jenny Williams had given way to a softer palette and a landscape straight from Williams’ Welsh home setting. There was a new baby sister (who sees the lion, although the mother doesn’t seem to) and the ending, as requested by her US publishers, is kinder: “So the lion in the meadow became a house lion and lived in the broom cupboard, and when the little boy had apples, stories and a goodnight hug, the lion had apples, stories and a goodnight hug as well.”

According to Duder’s book, Mahy agreed the original ending was “a bit implacable” for children. It also wasn’t quite what the author intended – that the mother never tried to use stories dishonestly again. “In trying to simplify it, I said something I didn’t quite mean, because of course I don’t mean the mother never made up a story again.”

But Mahy also empathised with those who preferred the original ending. As she told Elizabeth Knox in the 2008 animated documentary A Tall Long Faced Tale, the first ending was an affirmation of the power of imagination. “The second ending is a cosier one. It lacks the ruthlessness of the first ending, but it just seems to somehow alter the true impact of the story … I still think the first ending is the ‘true’ ending to the story.”

In its latest edition, Hachette has kept the second ending. Product manager Alison Shucksmith says she was unaware there was a different ending until the middle of last year and has not seen the original version of the book. Would she consider an edition with the first ending? Shucksmith personally prefers the current conclusion, but, “it isn’t against our ideals – we’d need to talk to the Mahy estate about whether it is something they’d want us to do”.

Author, children’s book editor and critic Kate De Goldi says the first ending valorised imagination and story. “That seems to me to be the essence of Margaret’s whole oeuvre – the power of story and language. It’s still a powerful book, but I think of Margaret as dedicated to imaginative release and impatient with characters who resist it.”

The final word belongs to the animated, and perhaps biased, lion in A Tall Long Faced Tale: “Well, I liked the first ending, so there.”

A LION IN THE MEADOW, by Margaret Mahy (Hachette, $20)

The Auckland Writers Festival features A Lion in the Meadow Reading, Auckland Town Hall, Sunday, May 19.

This article was first published in the April 13, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.