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‘The seed of a story’: The Hidden Kingdom

It is often difficult to remember exactly the initial seed, the faint stirrings of an idea that sets off the beginning of writing a long story. The root of the idea for The Hidden Kingdom is certainly muddled but it must surely begin with my long interest in Oriental art; in particular, Japanese woodblock prints and the anime films of Hayao Miyazaki’s Studio Ghibli. Whilst the book is not specifically set in Japan or any other country in particular, I have certainly borrowed freely from the mythologies and landscape of that country as I have come to understand it through many prints and films.

As a precocious and would-be aesthetic art student in the 1960s, I was obsessed with the world of Paris in the late nineteenth century. In my desultory student reading I chanced upon the Goncourt Brothers. In their famous journals they claimed to have introduced the cult of the Japanese wood block print to Europe. They had discovered the prints used as protective wrapping around the export cargoes of oriental blue and white china. The Goncourts, ever alert to artistic innovation, hailed the prints as great art and collected them, identifying such artists of genius as Hokusai, Hiroshige and Utamaro. Through their influential standing they in turn had an effect on the work of various painters in their own time, from Whistler and Monet to Bonnard and Van Gogh. So I, in turn, was influenced as it were, and these wood block prints by the Japanese masters remained a core part of my visual imagination. They influenced much of my illustration work over a forty year period, and as my confidence in writing grew I was keen to make something which had the flavour of those prints, especially the snowbound landscapes of Hiroshige.

Sometime in the late 1990s, I discovered Japanese illustration in a second form. I discovered a trailer on the internet for an animated film that had been a huge success in Japan, called Princess Mononoke, and shortly afterwards by coincidence I went on a teaching trip to Minneapolis where, through the kindness of my host, I was able to watch the whole film just released there on VHS.


I was stunned; here was the Japanese woodblock print tradition in all its subtlety but now, crucially, in motion. Here too was a new kind of animated story telling, epic and serious, with an astonishing level of attention to nature and to intense moments of natural detail. I recall the aesthetic shock caused by one scene which was just a simple observation of the way that raindrops fall and gradually darken a flat stone in a landscape. Such moments in Japanese cinema are known I believe as ‘pillow scenes’, where the director dwells on a beautiful moment for the sake of it, as a transition or cushion between scenes and not just for the simple propulsion of the story. I had never noticed anything like that before in animation.

So the prints and film images were one strand in the making of The Hidden Kingdom. The other was a simple opening sentence.

I was asked to contribute such a sentence to an educational text book, as a spur to encourage children in their own writing. The idea was for the child to continue from the point where the sentence left off and build a story from it. The sentence I came up with would not go away. It stayed in my head and occasionally nagged at me to continue it myself, just to find out what happened next. The sentence ran along the lines of, ‘The prince woke suddenly to the howling of wolves.’ I finally gave in to the need to continue it and worked deliberately at random, improvising, just to see where it would lead me, enjoying not knowing what would happen. I would have to find out what happened by actually writing it.

So I had two separate stories going on independently. One: a Japanese mythological tale set in a snowbound landscape; the other: the story of a Prince waking to the sound of wolves. They were in two separate folders on my computer along with a stored set of inspirational images. I worked on the two stories independently, nurturing and developing them in the usual way for some time but they stubbornly remained as discrete stories, each in their own world.

I enjoyed working on the Prince story because the main character had little idea of what was happening around him. In a way he was not unlike the amnesiac hero of the Jason Bourne films, where the audience are put in the same position as the protagonist and discover the story only as the hero does. So with the Prince, the reader would find out as the hero did.

I finally discussed the idea of the Prince story with Liz Cross, my editor at OUP, just after I had finished the third of the Tom Trueheart books. I described my idea in only the vaguest terms and Liz was trusting and patient enough to let me get on with it. It was only a month or two later that I realised, in a Eureka moment, that the two stories were in fact one and the same story. The two folders were happily blended together, the texts were married together seamlessly, and my characters met each other and their various destinies in their imagined landscapes and became one. The snowbound story of The Hidden Kingdom finally and slowly unfurled like a military banner on the saddle of a warrior’s horse, caught and opened by the wind.

Watch the trailer for The Hidden Kingdom here:

Recent Comments

  1. Mark Megson

    Interesting post, I’ve been constantly impressed by the output of the Ghibli studio and recently discovered Japanese woodblock prints. I’m familiar with Hiroshige’s work but now have a few more names to check out, this book will find a home on my Kindle very soon.

  2. Billy Burgess

    Thanks for writing a great post! The book sounds interesting even though I’ve never heard of the book before.

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