How to describe The Assassination of Brangwain Spurge? According to writer MT Anderson it’s “…a tragic meditation on how societies that have been trained to hate each other for generations can actually come to see eye to eye.” But is it? According to illustrator Eugene Yelchin, “A crazy story about two fools blinded by propaganda is not a tragedy. It’s a comedy.” Who’s correct? Well, both are. This National Book Award Finalist for Young People’s Literature is a story of political intrigue and espionage, and it’s a mismatched buddy story featuring two scholars from enemy countries who get caught up in deadly political machinations. It is quite humorous while it has you on the edge of your seat wondering if their world is about to end.
Brangwain Spurge is a scholar and ambassador from the kingdom of Elfland who has been sent to the Kingdom of Goblins on a diplomatic mission. He comes bearing a gift, a precious, historic gemstone within its own protective case, for Ghogh, the leader of the Goblins. Ostensibly, this is a peaceful mission, an attempt to open friendly relations between two peoples who have been at war with each other forever. And historically, the Elves have usually had the upper hand, taking Goblin land and inflicting a great number of casualties. There’s no love lost between Elves and Goblins, but this visit could be the start of a new age. In Tenebrion, the capital city of the Goblin Kingdom, Spurge is the guest of a fellow scholar, the archivist Werfel. Werfel is an expert on Elves and their ways, having studied them for his whole life. He is excited at the prospect of meeting another intellectual and sharing ideas and information. Werfel is the perfect host, offering the height of hospitality, as is the Goblin custom, and this means that he is responsible for and must protect his guest. Yet, it is clear from the moment of Spurge’s arrival that Werfel’s hospitality and patience are in for a great challenge.
What the reader knows, but Spurge and Werfel do not, is that the Elvish spy agency known as the Order of the Clean Hand has objectives other than diplomacy in mind for this mission. Yes, Spurge understands he is meant to act as a spy, sending transmissions back to Elfland every night. His goal is to gain entry to the Well of Lightning, which is the source of Ghogh’s power. Spurge must also personally give the gemstone to Ghogh, no intermediaries. Yelchin’s amazing illustrations, which look like woodcuts and are just breathtakingly intricate, show what Spurge sees in the Goblin kingdom. These ghastly images are sent telepathically to Lord Clivers, the head of the Order of the Clean Hand, former schoolmate of Spurge’s, confidant to the King and all around snob. Through Clivers’ correspondence with the King, the reader learns what the true mission of this trip is.
While Spurge is trying to accomplish his mission in Tenebrion, Werfel is pulling out all the stops to impress his esteemed guest. He frets over details, such as whether Elves can have chocolate; he arranges dinner with one of the noblest families in the land and gets tickets to one of the greatest cultural events of the season. Yet, Spurge is unimpressed with, even disgusted by, all that he sees, hears and tastes. Spurge is a snob and he is constantly offending the Goblins he meets. Given that Goblins are pre-disposed to dislike Elves, this is going to create potentially deadly problems for Spurge and Werfel. Since Werfel is responsible for Spurge, he must protect him at all costs, and as the story progresses, it becomes clear that Spurge’s exploits could cost both of them their lives.
This story is absolutely superb at demonstrating how one’s own prejudices and preconceived notions influence how we look at the past and how we get along (or don’t) with those who are so unlike ourselves. Spurge’s heartless comments to Werfel about his people and culture are jarring but familiar. For example, Goblins shed their skin periodically, and they save the skins as a form of personal history. Skins are valued and treasured. Spurge thinks they are revolting and says so to Werfel, causing him pain and embarrassment. On the subject of history, it seems that Elf and Goblin cannot see eye to eye. From Spurge’s point of view, Goblins are dirty, savage, evil and unable to protect themselves; the wars in which Elves took Goblin land were just. But Werfel and Goblins find Elves to be sneaky and dishonorable; Werfel’s story about losing his fiancé in the last war with the Elves is heartbreaking, and we know that every Goblin has a similar tale to tell. Werfel’s desire to entertain, please, and protect Spurge is a credit to his fine character, given the many good reasons he would have to hate the Elf.
Despite Spurge’s rude and dangerous behavior, Werfel does his job of protecting him, and Spurge eventually sees that perhaps he has been wrong not just about the Goblins and Werfel, but also about Elves. Yelchin’s drawings representing Spurge’s mental pictures of Goblins change so that by the end, we see quite literally that Spurge’s views of the Goblins are different and perhaps closer to the truth.
Give this book to your kids. Read it with them. You will love it and will maybe have some great conversations about how we look at our past and the prejudices we hold toward people who are different from us.