- A Milestone of Historical Fiction for Children:Otto of the Silver Hand
Along with Mark Twain's The Prince and the Pauper, Howard Pyle's Otto of the Silver Hand is one of the first historical novels written for children by an American.1 It is also one of the most remarkable, and it set the standard for many novels written since. There are two kinds of historical novels: those using both actual and fictional historical events and people, and those that use a historical period with fictional people and events. With the exception of Rudolph I and King Ottocar of Bohemia,2 there are no actual historical people in Otto of the Silver Hand; but that Otto is more fiction than history does not lessen its significance. It has all the marks of a good historical novel: it has an exciting plot, with ample conflict and believable characters; it uses language and dialect appropriate to its setting and the characters; it has a significant, universal theme, and it presents the details of daily life in Germany of the thirteenth century accurately and unobtrusively, making the period real and alive.
The conflict between the feuding houses of Baron Conrad and Baron Henry, and the conflict between good and evil represented by the church and by the robber barons, generate the action and suspense of the novel. It focuses on the boy Otto, the innocent victim of the feud and the hope of a brighter, less cruel world, a hope nurtured by Otto's early years with the monks at St. Michaelsburg. Steeped in the plots of traditional folktales, Howard Pyle had learned well how to construct a story that would keep readers, young or old, swiftly turning pages "to see what happens next." Pyle is especially effective in creating suspense in the episodes in which Baron Henry burns Drachenhausen, in which One-eyed Hans rescues Otto from Trutz-drachen, and in which Baron Henry cuts off Otto's hand.
The characterization of Otto also seems to be modeled on traditional folktales. Nearly all the characters are all good or all bad; only Baron Conrad and One-eyed Hans have both good and bad traits. Pyle has portrayed the problem of good and evil on a symbolic canvas, flattening most of the characters and aligning them on the side of good or evil.
One of the problems all historical novelists have is to create a reasonable facsimile of the language suitable to the time of their settings that will still be comprehensible to their readers. A writer cannot recreate the language of a specific period, certainly not that of thirteenth century Germany; but if he wants to convey the mood and flavor of a particular historical period, he cannot use completely contemporary language. On the other hand, too many "quotha's," "beset's," and "eldritch's" will destroy a period mood and flavor3. Pyle seems to have struck a happy mean in Otto of the Silver Hand; the language is neither too contemporaneous or too archaic. The speech of his characters is somewhat formal by our standards. As Baron Conrad bids his goodbye for the last time, he says, "My little child, try not to hate thy father when thou thinkest of him hereafter, even though he be hard and bloody as thou knowest." And a little earlier, he says to One-eyed Hans, "Then take thou this child, and with the others ride with all the speed that thou canst to St. Michaelsburg. Give the child into the charge of the Abbot Otto. Tell him how that I have sworn fealty to the Emperor, and what I have gained thereby—my castle burnt, my people slain, and this poor, simple child, my only son, mutilated by the enemy."4
Ideally, themes of historical novels should reflect truths valid for both the time of the story and for the present time. The theme of Otto of the Silver Hand was as important to its time as it is for ours. When Drachenhausen is rebuilt, Otto places beneath the scutcheon over the great gate a new motto for the Vuelphs: "Better a hand of silver than a hand...