With the questing, voyaging Earthsea world rattling round in my head, and the next Wild Spaces, Wild Magic trip in the planning – and the sun from my summer holiday still embedded in my face and shoulders – journeys have been much on my mind. It was natural, then, to look at a new blog review of Francesca Sanna’s wonderfully involved and visually effective The Journey from Simon Smith.

Mat Tobin has been consistent in talking about this book as an example of a complex text, as he says, “it shows how powerful the relationship between words and image can be.” He is quite right, and Simon Smith, acknowledging Mat’s insight, suggests

Sanna plays pictures against words wonderfully. The use of the child as the narrator creates a naivety and innocence to the written narrative that she exploits brilliantly.

Just last month I suggested, drawing on Alan Garner, that the world experienced is given meaning for us through story. The Journey is no simple trip, however: to compare it with, say, John Burningham’s The Shopping Basket (which I use with undergrads to think about the relationship between childhood and ecocriticism without getting into the issues of how much of a catechism ecological literature can be) would be misleading. It does, however, do just what Garner says: moving through the story is moving through the landscape, and gives sense to that environment. Sanna does the same: even though the scale of the figures – especially the menacing ones – is indicative of an internal perception of danger,  and the landscapes of forest and mountain are largely schematic, the intention is to help the reader make sense of the world. As Mat points out, this is partly because of the author’s encounter with real refugee children: this is where th power of the author comes from, I think. In the same way, when thinking of the ways that power transfers to the reader,  I was shocked – but I’m afraid not really surprised- that Simon was abused for his using this with the children he works with. No matter how symbolic this journey is, it represents a real world, just as the lad in Burningham’s book  is going past the “place where the nasty dog lived” and the “men digging up the pavement.” Migrant children need to be kept unreal, otherwise we may have to pay attention to the reality of the loss and difficulty they suffer. Naivety and innocence as Simon suggests are wholly appropriate; they also allow for a direct appeal to the reader. Maybe this is what makes Simon’s use of this book seem threatening.

In this, because of its realist roots, Sanna’s The Journey differs sharply from the well trodden epic-as-journey: as a huge oversimplification, I am edging towards suggesting that traveling to fight Khumbaba, to return to a mythic Ithaca, to found Rome tells us about the journeyer much more than the environment. The ecocritical approach might be to say that the human is at the centre in the epic and in the more intimate books of childhood, the child is part of a much bigger world. It may be that the marrying of text and illustration plays a part in this, too: I need to think this one through a bit more.

That’s grand epic (ineffectively) dismissed, and childhood at least discussed. I am still unsure about Odysseus, and really about the life-and-death questions of Frodo and Gilgamesh. What about Ged, in his little boat, sailing to see dragons and confront death?  And where does Frodo fit in all this, with the detailed history and geography Tolkien created?

…and if I’m thinking about Garner Country, what kind of a journey does Gawain go on? To the interior? To dream in Ludcruck?

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