Bear Hunt is an improbable book: wonderful, but not really a narrative of an afternoon’s outing. The children move through a variety of landscapes and seasons in a re-playing of an older nursery game (with possible variants about lions, guns &c.) and we are not, I think expected to view this narrative as reliable. Grassy hills in summer, mud flats, forests, snow and then to a seaside cave: wild, funny, incongruous, and fantastically depicted by Helen Oxenbury. It is open, therefore, to a lot of very playful interpretations – and therein lies some of its strength: the rhythms and the scenarios carry us along to the encounter with the bear and then back again. There could be debate about why the bear chases them, too – and whether it is hungry or lonely as it returns to its lair at the end. Michael Rosen’s own energetic performance of it differs from my own; I suspect everyone who has shared this with a child or a group of children will have done something similar: a pace-change here, an inflection there.
I might as well shrug and say “literature is like that.”
But one reason why literature allows so many interpretations is that we each bring to any interpretive act – reading, walking the landscape, whatever – the acts that have come before it.
And so Bear Hunt presents itself to me afresh as I prepare for my next encounter with the Big Thing we might suggest is not dissimilar to a bear in a cave: the dwelling of the Thurs (þyrs) that gives us Thursbitch. In that light the bear is a figure of terror as it is often in folktales, and actually that’s how I first read the Rosen-Oxenbury collaboration. Children, the innocent protagonists, play out a possible trespass and run home. Red Riding Hood’s great-grandchildren have to learn the lesson for themselves.
When we went to Ludchurch that feeling of trespass was not so much one of danger as of nefas, of the unhallowed intruding. The Green Chapel was a place of wonder, and if it is the site of Gawain’s encounter with the Green Knight, I can understand why. A place of awe and wonder – but also one from which Gawain returns chastened, wiser.
The next day’s expedition in the fog to Thursbitch felt different.
Here is Garner’s own evocative description of his visit not only to Thursbitch, but to the elusive Thoon above it:
At high noon in high summer, Thursbitch is visually different from the first visit, when I didn’t notice the bump on the horizon. Now I did. In the two-mile stretch of the valley, this outcrop is the only interruption of the peat ridge. We went to look.
It’s an extraordinary feature, entirely geological: a natural recess, shelter and cave, above a confluence of waters at a ford.
The combination of a natural cave above a confluence of waters at a ford made sense. In my background reading I’d discovered that such a place was the one most favoured by a þyrs.
When I – we – went there I was definitely a bit spooked, and it wasn’t a beautiful day: this was my account. Our haste at leaving felt more like a dismissal than being chased – and yet the dreams that followed certainly suggested I had felt more menaced than I had let on. To borrow Garner’s words “A novel may be finished. A journey is not.” Which is why I am sitting in a busy University atrium, planning the next trip – and why, thinking about We’re Going on Bear Hunt makes me wonder: trespass and return is a powerful theme, and if Garner’s mastery of his narrative means there is, in some sense, no return for the protagonists in his novel, this is an arabesque on the more familiar plot line: leaving home, trespass and initiation are deep-seated in our communal storytelling psyche.
Bear Hunt retains power as a story not only because of the lovely illustrations and the driving, rhythmic storytelling – and it does have both of those – but because it taps into a deep source. The children are Red Riding Hood’s descendants; they are also Gawaine’s.