I’m almost ashamed to admit that it was only recently I found this surprise bestseller from debut author Charlie Mackesy, or perhaps it would be fairer to say that it found me, as it came by way of a gift. It’s been said that “when the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” So perhaps it is only now that I was open to receiving the powerful teaching and timely message of “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse”.
“The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” – The Review
Reminiscent of “The Tao of Pooh” and “Big Panda and Tiny Dragon”, its childlike simplicity belies its inspiring and universally accepted wisdom. Each evocative drawing and beautifully typeset line in Charlie Mackesy’s handwriting offers a contemplation that speaks to one’s heart and soul and resonates with our own experiences. It resonates with how I feel about being human, being grateful, valuing the present moment and seeking to understand one’s purpose and meaning. It’s little wonder this book has been gifted so many times. I have so far purchased three copies as gifts for friends.
Mackesy describes his book as “a small graphic novel of images with conversation, over landscape.” It unfolds as conversations between four characters, an unorthodox fellowship of sorts, who meet in the wild, become friends and journey together. This journey becomes their space and time to reflect on what they feel, fear and hope for. They ponder what it means to love, to feel at home, to be afraid, to be vulnerable, to ask for help, to be kind, to be friends and to understand what keeps us going even when the going gets tough.
The author sees all four characters as representing different parts of the same person. The Mole is greedy for cake, like Charlie Mackesy himself, who confesses to reaching out for something delicious when things get difficult. The Boy is inquisitive, scared of being seen as ordinary, longing to get home. The Fox has been damaged by life, he is withdrawn and finds it difficult to trust others and worries that he has nothing to say or contribute. The Horse is the all-knowing heart and soul in all of us, that sees things for what they truly are.
The origins of the book began on Instagram when Machesy started posting his images with as he said “no agenda…they were just a way of saying what I felt about existence and what I thought was important.”
His first image featuring the horse and the boy grew from a conversation he had with his friend Bear Grylls (a man well known for courageous adventures) about what courage looked like. Charlie confessed that the bravest thing he had done was to have the courage to ask for help at a time when he needed it most.
From there, that one simple image took on a life of its own. It was put on notice boards in schools, prisons and hospitals. Institutions started adopting its message, as well as the army which used it for PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). Other images found their way onto buildings and people were getting the characters tattooed on their bodies. And so, the universal truths that every page of this book expounds so beautifully resonated far and wide. Wide enough to reach Laura Higginson (an editor at Ebury Press), who discovered Charlie’s images on Instagram and discussions began about turning these images into a book.
Whilst working on the book, Charlie Mackesy had no pre-conceptions of its far-reaching appeal and ultimate success. Selling ten copies would be lucky, he thought.2 At one of his early signing sessions, people qued for hours with one woman alone buying ten copies. “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” was published on 10th October 2019 and the first print run was a conservative 10,000. Very quickly, hundreds of thousands more were printed and sold. A few years post the book’s release, sales have long passed a million copies, the book becoming the longest-running Sunday Times hardback chart-topper to date.1
“The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” was one of the winners of the 2020 Nielsen Bestseller Awards achieving Platinum status. All titles that achieve Platinum status are inducted into the “21st century Hall of Fame”. He was also awarded Maddox Gallery Artist of the Year at the GQ Men of the Year Awards in 2020 along with Illustrator of the Year at the British Book Awards in 2021. Not a bad effort for a debut author!
Charlie admits to being shocked at the book’s tremendous word-of-the-mouth success. In his introduction to the book, he ponders:
“When I was making the book I often wondered, who on earth am I to be doing this? But as the horse says: ‘the truth is everyone is winging it.”
Ain’t that the truth! He is known to give back by deliberately leaving copies of the book, his drawings and prints on the bus, in the street telephone boxes or on benches in public spaces, giving the random finders-keepers the gift of his art and wisdom.
Mackesy took inspiration for his first drawing for the book from an afternoon he spent with the son of a friend, who was climbing a tree and asking lots of questions (as children do). The resulting image on page five is of a boy sitting on a branch who asks the mole: “What do you want to be when you grow up?” the answer: “Kind.” On the next spread is the same boy and mole in the tree “What do you think success is?” asked the boy. “To love” said the mole. You can see a video of Mackesy illustrating that same image below as he talks about his book.
Charlie Mackesy – Art and Illustrations
Mackesy’s drawings have a loose, abstract and whimsical quality. Ink pen and brush are unforgiving as mistakes cannot be easily hidden with an eraser, therefore each stroke Mackesy renders is bold and deliberate. His lines are rough and free-flowing and he makes no effort to hide the underlying outlines and anatomical framework of his characters. A few lines and shapes are all he needs to suggest the essence and movement of his figures.
There are also some colour and monochrome paintings with delicate wash and ink which give a further indication as to how accomplished Mackesy is as an artist and illustrator. If you need additional proof of his artistic skills you should check out his drawings and paintings at charliemackesy.com. According to Mackesy’s biography on his website:
“He never went to art school but spent three months in America with a portrait painter where he learned about anatomy and how to deal with bed bugs.”
“The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” – The Music
One of the unexpected delights of this book is its endpaper. A music score illustrated with images of the boy, the mole, the fox and the horse. Curiosity got the better of me and I just had to find out where this music came from. It’s a piece by Robert Schumann from Album für die Jugend (Album for the Young) composed in 1848 for his three daughters and is a collection of 43 short works. The piece is called Soldatenmarsch (Soldier’s March), op. 68, no. 2. You can hear it performed below:
“The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” has also been turned into an audiobook which was recorded in a barn in Suffolk with Mackesy’s narration and features real sounds of English wildlife and is available on Audible. Composers Max Richter and Isobel Waller-Bridge created music, especially for this audiobook. And if that weren’t enough, this music score has been immortalised in a two-disc vinyl set. The only thing left for this creative juggernaut is a film. Mackesy is currently working on an animated film of the book.
Charlie Mackesy – The Author and Illustrator
Charlie Mackesy was born December 11, 1962, in Northumberland in the North East of England. He attended a number of schools and attempted university twice (leaving both within a week). He lived and painted in South Africa, Southern Africa, and America. His artistic career began as a cartoonist for the Spectator and then as a book illustrator for Oxford University Press. He even worked on the set of Love Actually with Richard Curtis (the writer and director) to create a set of drawings to be auctioned for Comic Relief. He is also a sculptor with some of his bronzes on display in public spaces in London, including Highgate Cemetery and the Brompton Road. When Charlie is not conquering the art and literary world he co-runs Mama Buci, which is a honey social enterprise in Zambia.
Charlie Mackesy singles out Edward Ardizzone, the author and illustrator active in the 1960s and 1970s whom Charlie credits with shaping his understanding of writing and illustrating. As for the writing, he quotes Sallinger and Tolstoy as some of his greatest literary influencers. He has read and reread “Anna Karenina” and “The Catcher in the Rye”.3 On the latter he notes: “I remember reading the first sentence over and over again, smiling at it”, that sentence being:
“If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”(J. D. Salinger “The Catcher in the Rye”)
It is possibly these influences that illuminate Charlie Mackesy’s belief that the best writing advice is to “write about what you know and really feel”.
To the question of “What’s your biggest regret?” he responds “Oh, gosh. I was in love with a girl, and I was too scared to say it. I was 25.” Not surprisingly then talking about the inspiration for this book, he notes that it has come from:
What I wish I’d known, what I could tell myself if I could go back in time. Perhaps I’d have shown myself some of this stuff about love and kindness and self-acceptance, to take the worry out and make me feel more connected.3
Now that the teacher has appeared and I have finally read this philosophical work of art, I cannot help but feel acknowledged, reassured and uplifted. Acknowledged for the fears and doubts we all harbour in these uncertain times, “Everyone is a bit scared. But we are less scared together”, said the Horse. Reassured, that “one of our greatest freedoms is how we react to things”. A freedom that can never be taken away. And uplifted by the simple realisation as to why we are here, “To love” said the boy, “And be loved” said the horse.
It was a real struggle to choose ‘favourites’ to feature in this post, from more than 120 pages of the book. Despite it being shaped as a journey its narrative is non-linear (the book is unpaginated) and you can dive into it at any page you care to open. After browsing the images below I hope they motivate you to read the book in its entirety. And once you’ve done so, I promise that you’ll want to gift it to friends and loved ones. “The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse” really is the gift that keeps on giving.
- 1 “How The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse became a publishing phenomenon” by Alice Vincent
- 2 Interview with Charlie Mackesy on the Success of ‘The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse’ | This Morning
- 3 “Meet the Author Charlie Mackesy” a Q&A with Penguin publisher