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A Story of Medieval England
by Marguerite de Angeli
Literature Study from Barbara Smith
Events: affliction, disappointment and abandonment can create what might appear to be an impossible wall for adults to scale. How can a child overcome such crises? In a story set in thirteenth century London a young lad, Robin, of no more than ten confronted an apparently impregnable wall to conquer. First, his parents left him in the care of servants to serve the king. Then, in their absence, a sudden crippling illness afflicted Robin, destroying the plans for him to become a page, the first step in training to become what his father was, a knight. Frightened and difficult, this child languished within the walls of his father’s house, only to be abandoned by the those charged to care for him until the parents’ return.
Providentially, a gentle friar, Brother Luke, came to his aid and removed the boy from the plague-infested city to St. Mark’s, a monastery and hospice. Leaving the security of his father’s walled courtyard, Robin was apprehensive but Brother Luke encouraged him to remember the wall about his father’s house and the Tower: “Thou hast only to follow the wall far enough and there will be a door in it.” Robin agreed but did not grasp what the friar meant.
At St. Marks Robin gained strength and skills. Under the watchful care of the friars Robin learned to whittle, read, and then swim. These were hardly the proper skills for a knight-in-training. But Robin learned the skills and developed the stamina that enabled him to be as brave and resourceful as any knight in the service of the King. Brother Luke taught him that whether he would walk again or not, “We must teach our hands to be skillful in many ways, and we must teach our mind to go about whether thy legs will carry thee or no. For reading is another door in the wall.” Now Robin saw what the friar meant about the door in the wall. Moreover, Robin learned how to pray and be thankful to the Father for all he has.
Robin finally could send word to his father, telling him of his trials. His father replied, urging Robin to go to the castle of the Sir Peter, for whom he was to have been a page. Amid the circumstances of foreign invaders and war Robin, Brother Luke and the minstrel, John-go-by-the-Wynd quickly set off. Relying on his wits and strength, Robin was a helpful traveling companion. At Sir Peter’s castle, the knight welcomed Robin, overlooking his crooked back and withered legs: “Each of us has his place in the world. If we cannot serve in one way, there is always another. If we do what we are able, a door always opens to something else.”
Trust, diligence and finally service became the doors through which Robin passed, overcoming the seemingly impregnable wall of affliction, disappointment and loneliness. As Robin takes his place in Sir Peter’s family, an opportunity to defend his mentor and the king takes shape. Bravely, Robin does what no other could do and became the hero of a great victory, and the pride and delight of his mother and father.
The Door in the Wall, the Newbery Award Medal winner in 1950, is an excellent companion piece to studying the Middle Ages. Marguerite de Angeli (1889-1987), a self-taught illustrator and author of over thirty children’s books, carefully developed and researched the idea for the story when traveling in England. The novel is filled with historical facts about life in medieval England. A proper title eluded her until her husband reminded her of an incident when she had counseled her son, “When you come to a stone wall, if you look far enough, you will find a door in it.”
This is good advice to remember: whenever adversity blocks our way, and walls us off from our dreams, God provides a door through the wall and makes a better way.
Also, try to find an older copy of this novel so that your students can see the beauty of Mrs. De Angeli’s illustrations. The paperback editions cannot reproduce the detail of her compositions.
Personal application: Robin found a way of escape in the midst of very difficult circumstances. What are “walls” in your life keeping you locked up, in or out? God has provided a way of escape; in your Bible, can you find several verses which might become your way of escape in tough times? Commit them to memory — you might not have a Bible with you all the time.
Marguerite deAngeli Collection
©Barbara W Smith