What is Children’s Literature For?

I began to think about this in the context of a canon of children’s literature, which I discussed in April.  I wasn’t going to blog more about this – blogging time needs to go to my pending teaching and the next Wild Spaces, Wild Magic trip in November. However, three ideas have surfaced this week that need a bit of rethinking for me. I referred on Twitter to the last time the “shouldn’t be allowed” argument drifted my way, which I discussed in this blog post.

The most recent – that is, today, is this Guardian article on children’s literature and empathy by Alison Flood.  The research is based on children’s responses to an anthropomorphic Little Raccoon – and I have to be honest and admit that this YouTube representation doesn’t endear me to the text for starters.  Note however, (5 min 09 sec) the explicit message “When you share with others they share with you.” So first of all, let’s just get that out of the way: that’s not a moral message, or the moral of the story; it’s an aspiration.  The moral of the story is “sharing is good.” It is a heavy-handed delivery at best, and do bear in mind the comments made by @zudensachen on Twitter, his best being, I think

I’m critical of the psychology research approach that expects moral stories to ‘work’ as exemplars. Stories are wriggly.

Wriggly. Brilliant. And here is the first flaw in the research: poor quality literature is no better as a guide to children’s ability to infer, critique and wonder than a bowl of nutritious slop is a guide to their ability to discern healthy food.  Bluntly put, there is no wriggle in the cute raccoon.

I do share Dave Aldridge’s general disquiet about the kind of study referred to in the Guardian that explores the tricksy interface between psychology and literature, but that’s my problem. Patricia Ganea’s work is itself interesting  (I am in any case grateful for the nudge away from my knee-jerk reaction to actually looking at her work that I got from the inestimable Hamish Chalmers). Her “Do cavies talk?: The effect of anthropomorphic books on children’s knowledge about animals” is a fascinating study, useful for my own research because of the landscape issues it throws up , and I need to come back to her “Toddlers’ referential understanding of pictures” which I have just seen.  The problem really comes down to the bigger question about “using” children’s literature. In the article Alison Flood bases her own work on, “Do storybooks with anthropomorphized animal characters promote prosocial behaviors in young children?” – linked here, if it works – Larsen, Lee and Ganea explore issues around children’s understanding of choices and actions through the issues of identity and anthropormphism. It is good to see the Marriott “Red in tooth and claw?” cited; they know their stuff. There is, I think, a big problem with quality: Little Raccoon Learns to Share is, as I’ve suggested, not the best: heavy-handed morality and wordy, and the “humanised” Photoshop version the team produced consequently can’t be much better. The comparability of texts is assured, but only, it seems to me, at the cost of the text being engaging.  That the control book is by Eric Carle is almost worth a methodological reflection in its own.

The Guardian article ends with voices from authors. I am unsure whether the article’s author is missing a tone of irony or whether I am searching, desperately, for something that isn’t there, but the final paragraphs suggest we are all a bit lost:

Picture book author Tracey Corderoy said that in her experience, “where the main characters of a moral tale are animals as opposed to humans, the slight distancing that this affords the young child does a number of important things. It softens the moral message a little, making it slightly more palatable. Some would feel that this waters it down and makes it less effective. But the initial ‘saving-face’ that using animals brings quite often results, I feel at least, in keeping a child reader engaged.”

Kes Gray, the author of the bestselling rhyming animal series Oi Frog and Friends, was unperturbed by the researchers’ findings. “Authors and illustrators have no need to panic here, as long as we keep all of the animal protagonists in all of their future stories unreservedly cuddly. Big hair, big eyes and pink twitchy noses should pretty much nail it,” he said.

Here we are into this idea that children’s literature has qualities that are only to be measured by the message, by the use an adult can get.

The second is my finishing (again today, on the bus) Joan Aiken’s personal take on writing. There are things about the child reader’s reading of significance :

…The child may draw conclusions from the actor’s face and general demeanour, but he won’t have any certainty about it And such experience as he has to draw on will be limited…

that I might query, and other pithy comments I want to stick on my wall:

A child reader is very like a wary and agile fish – to keep his attention you have to bait your hook with cunning…

If you can pluck out some small common denominator of experience that will instantly register with the reader, you have made yourself a friend…

Personally, I believe that an overt moral message is to be avoided like the plague… A book is supposed to be for pleasure, isn’t it? Who are you, anyway, to preach morals to the young?

And the third is the arrival of Pam Smy‘s book Thornhill, and the kerfuffle it has caused. This is her blog  and Mat’s thoughtful review (avoiding spoilers as Ella in the story avoids brambles) is here and (of course) well worth a read.  My comments here aren’t going to contain spoilers either, because I haven’t read it to the end; the thoughts here aren’t about what promises to be (and people warn me that it will be) a troubling denouement, but about the language people are using about the book. It comes down, in many cases, to the notion of suitability – and this in turn seems more to be about classroom use and where it is marketed in bookshops. Fight your way, then, first off, past the BBC sign-in system and listen to this http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07jlm30 posted by @rokewood on Twitter this morning as a timely reminder on the general picture and then consider these statements:

  • Bloody hell!That is one hell of a book. How to teach with it?
  • Certainly wouldn’t use at primary; not for whole class and prob not with an individual child unless I knew very well indeed. Powerful though.
  • Totally unsuitable for under [age range specified].
  • We read stories precisely in order to help them grow emotionally, morally and spiritually.
  • Why teach that life is hopeless?

I’ve selected and anonymised them, and they are presented here with only one (sort of) judgmental comment: that under all of them is the assumption that books are there specifically to help adults do something., and that misjudgment around this can be damaging. It is a schoolified view of literature. “We read stories precisely in order to…”

So much here, it’s hard to know where to start, so I shall go back to my beginning. Is the dilemma about “using” Thornhill about the authority and/or moral purpiose of the teacher? Is children’s literature fundamentally a socialisation process involving text? Is it there so that this book or that can be a vehicle for a curricular aim? Where does the responsibility lie in the chain of author/illustrator>publisher>bookseller>adult supplier of money for books (parent, headteacher)>adult chooser/proposer of this book or what? Whose job is it to approve of the books children access? Why ask children to read, to be engaged with narrative and character in fiction?  What is literature for?

Answers on a postcard.

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Hiya Ed

When I started at University, I spent the first, painful term, calling my tutor, Dr Taplin, “Errrm,” because I didn’t know what to call him. I now see from his College bio entry that he was frighteningly old (to use a phrase from Lucy Boston): in his mid-thirties. Maybe as old as some of my younger colleagues, such as Jon or Mat. I was completely in awe.

But that was 1976. Oliver Taplin was a young, successful academic in the only University I knew. Heir to C S Lewis (who also taught Classics at Magdalen) , but very willing to shake us out of the reverential classics of school by getting us to look at Archilochus, or to try for an appropriate modern word for “pedicabo” in Catullus. As I said, I was completely in awe: when Dr Walker said hello to me outside Blackwells Bookshop, I was dumbstruck. When we last met, at a Widening Participation event a couple of years ago, I called him Ralph, and even then wasn’t sure if that was sacrilege.

Language changes, status changes, and with both of those forms of address change. As we get ready for a new academic year, as we read the comments from students of last year – cards after graduation, the Trip Advisor that is NSS – I wonder what this cohort will make of me. It’s (just) possible this is the last group of first years that I will see through to graduation: how will I appear to them? To rub it in, I look for my own staff page, and find a “Page Not Found.” Absit omen.

Which brings me back to my jokey title. How will the emails address me and my colleagues? “Dear Professor”? “Hey, Nick”? And does it really matter? Is respect something that goes hand-in-hand with cautious forms of address? Should formality be demanded? What does it signify? What is gained, what is lost?

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Three (sets of) Ravens

Those who know me well enough – and even some people that don’t, becasue I am such a show-off  – know that I have three ravens tattooed on one shoulder. I love them, and listen out for the Cronk Cronk of the one that occasionally heckles me on the allotment. They are there because I used to sing the Thomas Ravenscroft song to my children in the hours of walking them back to sleep when they were babies. This link takes you to the text, and this one to the first version I knew, sung by Alfred Deller. One lot of ravens.

The second is the lino cut Corvus Corax my daughter has made:

By Anne Swarbrick

Full of humour in that beady eye, agile even in print form, it tells me so much about our shared love of the big birds we see at the local Falconry Centre. Corvus Corax: the Common Raven.

The third is another raven from my adolescence (yes I still watched Jackanory when I was in VIth Form) and my children’s childhood, Arabel’s comic and anarchic raven in  stories by Joan Aiken, among them the three I know best,  Arabel’s Raven, The Escaped Black Mamba (I left that out of the precis below) and The Bread Bin. In the first, the respectable taxi-driver Ebenezer (Ben) Jones picks up a distressed raven which his daughter Arabel names Mortimer, much to her mother Martha’s despair. Adventure follows, as the raven becomes entangled in a kidnapping and bank heist. In the second, Mortimer is firmly established in the Jones’ household, although not without protest from the grown-ups. Chris the babysitter is involved this time as Arabel’s parents go out, and the raven gets stuck in a trumpet, and more gangland involvement ensues. In the third story, Arabel gets bronchitis and goes to hospital, and Mortimer goes missing. There is a happy ending, if you’re worried. Other stories also came out in similar vein: the riotous Mortimer, Carnival in black; robbers; clashes with the establishment in the form of police, librarians, huntsmen and research scientists.

And there we have it with Arabel and The Common Raven. Aiken is careful with her class distinctions, drawing heavily, it seems to me, on the conventions of Ealing Comedy to depict her colourful inhabitants of NW London. What amazes me is her ability to write about an ordinary family in N London and hint at accent and (therefore, indirectly underline) class without becoming incoherent or patronising. There is a wobble, perhaps, in the depiction of the Irish Mr Plunkett who does say “Glory Be!” and “Begorrah” and uses “Ye,” but little else. Much of the comedy that does not come from Arabel’s trust for the raven’s really poorly adapted way of living with humans comes from Mrs Jones and her outbursts:

“Oh good gracious me did you ever see anything so outrageously provoking in all your born days?” said Mrs Jones. “I never did, not even when I worked at the Do-it-yourself delicatessen: don’t you go running after that black feathered Monster, Arabel, you stay right here.”

Notice the punctuation. We are meant, I think, to hear this as a stream of outrage; I can imagine Kenneth Williams in full flood (it was actually Bernard Cribbins who read them on Jackanory and I do recall he was fantastic: here is Cribbins in fine form in a later story). Her annoyance makes her instantly believable, and a true foil for Arabel’s innocence. As with the latest film adaption of Paddington, where his migrant refugee status is played up, there is perhaps a hint that Mrs Jones over-emphasising the blackness of the raven – the “black fiend of a bird” – but ambiguous, and in character, not as narrator, and nothing to compare with the more explicit comments of Roald Dahl.  As a final thought, and very revealing of his own processes,  Quentin Blake is here commenting on the process of preparing for the illustrations in Jackanory and the printed books.

Where the social distinctions are drawn in the Raven stories, it is mostly in the clashes with authority. The doctors in Rumbury Central are somewhat exempt (except for nervous rashes), but the fierce ward sister Sr Bridget Hagerty and in a later story the visiting GP are not; the police investigating possible GBH in the Jones’ household are stock figures of po-faced ineptitude; bank managers and solicitors all get some sort of come-uppance. We are in the realm of Capt. Mainwaring   and the Ealing Comedies. The record shop bosses in Arabel’s Raven, for example, who try and dun the Joneses for the damage the raven causes, employ solicitors to try and recoup their loss; they are described as “that pair of sharks” by Mrs Jones and end up being arrested. Dominant Aunt Olwen in Mortimer’s Cross, a descendant of Saki’s humourless older women bullies, is abandoned unceremoniously in favour of the much nicer Auntie Meg in Bangor. The gentle representation of a Welsh dialect is telling:

“Ben never said anything about sending you, lovey,” she said. “Company for me you’ll be, while Gwennie’s in hospital. Nice,  that is.”

Aiken plays with stereotypes skillfully by not over representing them, by hinting through the characters’ use of language. It becomes natural that Mr Jones’ family are Welsh – why would a Jones not be? – and the pomposity of the establishment is lampooned and dismantled – as any comedy from Moliere (and before) suggests they must be. The Raven stories thus represent a first satire for young readers on societal difference, in which the comedy is found in the situations and language of an ordinary family and their interactions with their world, the catalyst for adventure being the Loki-like disrupter, Mortimer the raven. Mortimer is thus the inheritor of the mantle of the divine trickster  (a good Wikipedia entry [sic] here). That the Joneses and Mortimer are a far cry – a far Kaaark – from the Wolves of Willoughby Chase and the other, more solemn, work Joan Aiken did for an older audience is only a testament to her skill.

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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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Dancing above the hollow place


will do to start me off on a brief visit to the spirituality represented in Le Guin’s first three Earthsea stories.

And let me start with three sources, rather than end with references:

  • Paul Reps representation of classic Zen texts in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones, linked here
  • Alan Watts’ Tao, the Watercourse Way, linked here
  • And the text itself of the Tao Te Ching, which exists in a number of different versions and translations into English – this one, for example, and this one. 

And by saying, as if  it needed saying, that I am no Zen master or Taoist scholar. I cannot begin to explore the riches of these great traditions. I might be the scholar of spirituality that the early expression of  Christian monasticism dismisses as someone who “has filled his window with books.”

So let’s look at Earthsea.  In the first book, A Wizard of Earthsea,  Le Guin describes how Ged, the boy who will be at the centre of all three stories, is recognised by the wizard Ogion, and struggles to make sense of his desire to “learn, to gain power,” when Ogion will not even use magic to stop them getting wet. Silence is key to Ged’s learning, but so also is a simple life. It reminded me of the apprenticeship of a young Buddhist with a mountain hermit, where the apprentice asks about the Buddha-nature and the master responds with instructions about tea, or rice. Ged’s choice of action and scholarship as a Mage in the city/college of Roke colours his life in the next books, to the point where there is a wistfulness about his return to his ageing master in the third book – a wistfulness, and something akin to the tension Herman Hesse explores in Narziss and Goldmund, and The Glass-Bead Game (The desert-and-a-city is also a fundamental tension in the early Christian monastic developments in Egypt, where “going back to the city” is a recurring problem, and word-and-silence a theme throughout the great recounting of the sayings of the desert monastics).

But when we come to the Tombs of Atuan, we are, perhaps, more in the labyrinth of Jungian mapping of the subconscious. The protagonist, Tenar, discovers herself, or she discovers the nature of her role as the Eaten One, the priestess of the claustrophobic  temple above a dark labyrinth,  and then meets the questing Mage, Ged. This is not a master and apprentice relationship as in Book 1, but an uncomfortable negotiation that leads to liberating Tenar to “a vast, clear, wintry sky, a vast barren, golden land of mountains and wide valleys.” As she watches Ged she realises that

Living, being in the world, was a much greater and stranger thing than she had ever dreamed.

It is the same idea, maybe, as Thomas Merton’s lines

…to be ordinary is not a choice:

It is the usual freedom

Of men without visions.

And the very Le Guin-like pondering of R S Thomas:

               …is man’s

meaning in the keeping of himself

afloat over seventy thousand

fathoms, tacking against winds

coming from no direction

going in no direction?

But here we are the heart of the difficulties of very deep spiritual experiences: that there is both enlightenment and no enlightenment, vision and no vision. The night in Ged’s boat, Lookfar, shows Tenar

a vaster darkness… There was no end to it. There was no roof. It went on out beyond the stars. No earthly Powers moved it. It had been before light, and would be after. It had been before life, and would be after. It went on beyond evil.

Is Le Guin referring to the Tao? The core message of the Heart Sutra? No roof, no obstacle, the destroyer of all suffering the incorruptible truth? Maybe I overstate my case, or maybe I’m just jumping the gun.

In The Farthest Shore, the ageing Mage, Ged, has a number of statements very close to classic Taoism. The Chinese links are reinforced by the changing power relationships around the dragons: none of the terrible creatures in Le Guin’s world are really like Qinglong or the other traditional dragons, but the connection seems important: in Earthsea they are also sources of ancient wisdom and magic. They are as necessary in Earthsea as in the heavens of the Jade Emperor.

The Farthest Shore is already a special text  for me, and I know I will read it again. This is partly because of the episode below, and the ways that master and pupil interact, lose sight of one another, face doubt and pain and come to their understanding of their lives together. I know this is simply a personal matter, but in terms of tonight’s blog post it has some relevance. For me the most meaningful episode is the confrontation and reconciliation that occurs when the youth Arren recognises his despair as he discusses his all-but abandonment of his hero, Ged. The stricken hero effects the reconciliation with a resounding rhetoric:

…This is. And thou art. There is no safety. There is no end. The word must be heard in silence. There must be darkness to see the stars. The dance is always danced above the hollow place, above the terrible abyss.

The dance above the emptiness, the Yin and Yang.  The wording  echoes the song that starts the first book, which the boy Arren then sings when the summer ritual falters, and brings us back to the silence of meditation.

There is much, much more, of course: Farthest Shore is a moving, insightful Pilgrim’s Progress around society’s attitude to death, for one thing, but for this blog this will have to do for the lyrical prose about self-discovery. I am sailing too close to the Argus posters of the 70s.

There is, however, one, much more explicit, Taoist link, in Ch 4. The reader begins to understand what might be in store as Ged, the understanding and compassionate leader whose decisions will take Arren  into danger and death (yes, there are shades of Dumbledore and Harry, or rather we might check off another source for Rowling), sees the youth’s future as king. He talks to the youth of kingship and its role in the Earthsea world:

We must learn to keep the balance. Having intelligence we must not act in ignorance. Having choice we must not act without responsibility. Who am I – though I have the power to do it – to punish and reward, playing with men’s destinies?

[…] I will continue to do good, and to do evil … But if there were a king over us all again, and he sought counsel of a mage, as in the days of old, and I were that mage, I would say to him: My lord, do nothing because it is righteous, or praiseworthy, or noble, to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do, and which you cannot do in any other way.’”

Powerful. Compare these extracts from the Tao Te Ching:

[37] If kings and the nobilities can abide by their true nature and follow the great Tao, All things shall be reformed naturally. If during the process of reform, desires arouse. I shall overcome with the simplicity of original nature. With the simplicity of true nature, there shall be no desire. Without desire, one’s original nature will be at peace.

[46] The greatest crime is to have too much desire. The greatest disaster is not to find contentment. The greatest mistake is to desire for endless possession. Hence, when one is gratified with self-contentment, True contentment can then long endure.

Le Guin puts her hero Ged into questing and travelling narratives, and while the wandering scholar is at home in Buddhism and Taoism, it would be misleading to ignore the Tao Te Ching when it says

[47]…there is no need to leave the house to take journey in order to know the world. There is no need to look outside of the window to see the nature of Tao.

To end the post. If we understand there are religious/philosophical influences here, how might it warn the reader to read carefully? I find the points at which Le Guin seems to lay bare a theological approach based on Buddhism/Taoism (I am very aware they are not the same) almost at the same level as C S Lewis lays bare in Narnia a Western Christian cosmology. If this is the key to Le Guin’s world as Anglican Christianity is to Narnia, then it is more than an oriental wallpaper, and needs to be treated with as much regard.

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Creating Relationships with Place through Story

This is Garner’s own line, and I come back again and again to the talk it comes from.

I am not going to debate his method or dispute with him about this. I do wonder, however, about whether there is a mutual relationship here, too.  Place gives rise to story, story creates relationship with place – this is at the heart of the repeated line in Boneland that has become something of a motto for me “I dream in Ludcruck.” It is also at the heart of the saying I have on my office door, “Sing me frumsceaft.” (This is as good an introduction as any to the English text of Bede’s story of Caedmon.) “Sing to me the origin of things” commands the vision – and the illiterate, tone-deaf shepherd does:

He ærest sceop    eorþan bearnum

heofon to hrofe,  halig Scyppend

and it is a divine act of shaping, creation from on high, ex nihilo: the world comes from nothing, the song from nothing, too.

The world experienced, “place” in effect, is given meaning for us through story. However, I think the converse is also true: for me the song does not come from nothing: this valley, that hill, have meaning because of a story about it, and the meaning is given because of the story. We are knots in a web of interconnected stories and places, “haunted,” as Robert Macfarlane says in The Wild Places, by the archetypes, for example,  of forest and upland, and what our forebears have made of them or said about them. Perhaps this is one of the Oxford connections for writers such as Cooper, Garner, Lewis, Tolkein: they are searching not for a one-way relationship but something much more mutual and complex.

I am typing maybe 200m from where, driving back to Oxford in Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night,  Harriet Vane starts her descent:

Headington. She was very near now, and in spite of herself a chill qualm cramped her stomach. Headington Hill, up which one had toiled so often, pushing a decrepit bicycle. It seemed less steep now, as one made decorous descent behind four rhythmically pulsating cylinders; but every leaf and stone hailed one with the intrusive familiarity of an old school-fellow. Then the narrow street, with its cramped, untidy shops, like the main street of a village; one or two stretches had been widened and improved, but there was little real change to take refuge in.

Magdalen Bridge. Magdalen Tower. And here, no change at all–only the heartless and indifferent persistence of man’s handiwork. Here one must begin to steel one’s self in earnest. Long Wall Street. St. Cross Road. The iron hand of the past gripping at one’s entrails…

For Sayers, this is the start of a deceptively simple exploration – Gaudy Night is at once a crime thriller, a romance and a gentle satire – of the city where she was born, where she attended University.  Her principal character is coming to terms with the “the whimpering ghost of her dead youth” in a landscape (and an urban and very particular one at that). She is creating a place, both real and imagined, making sense of the place through story – but also recognising how much the story shapes the characters. I don’t think it shapes just the characters in a story, however wonderful and terrifying it is to be out in the marshes with Pip or on the rooftops of Paris with Vango, or with Olive in the Lighthouse  in Emma Carroll’s book, or in the chalk pits with Tom Tit Tot or even (the list goes ever on and on) in the fairytale landscape of the Ahlbergs; it also shapes the reader, helps give sense to their world.  Story arises from place, and invites us to make sense of place: aetiology is not a one-way path, and it is not just for critics and folklorists. As Thomas Lane’s ingratiating dedicatory poem-preface to Robert Plot’s “Natural History of Stafford-shire” begins:

Describe the Land, Israel’s Commander said

And the glad Artists strait the word obey’d

Describing, engaging: this is the heart of Garner’s intensely localised life-long project, it seems to me. In looking at/for Thursbitch, we recognised as we wrote for Folklore Thursday that

the fear of us losing touch with the stories that made us who we are and still design us. What will happen to us when we stop looking back; when we can no longer dreamwalk into a history?


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From Alderley to Arkudah

When William Mayne’s Vendale appears in Earthfasts it is largely a recognisable place, a Dales market town, but with features from the Lakes, the high Pennines: it is a composite of a number of places. Emmerdale is maybe one valley away one way; Wharfedale is another. De Fombelle‘s Scottish Highlands in Vango, the wonderfully named Everland, is similarly more-or-less fictional. In both these works the authors move the reader from one imagined place to another skilfully.  Skillfully, in that the atmosphere of a place is beautifully captured – but maybe at the expense of accuracy.

But does that matter, except to a pedant like me? I am not sure that de Fombelle is really interested in the clerical dress of the Church of Scotland, for example, but I am sure he wants the reader to be with Ethel in her horseback chase after the lost sheep and the horror with which she finds her neighbours are hunting a human, not a deer. The rush of the story needs setting and landscapes, and I hold it up by quibbling. Vango is set in real as well as half-real places: so much so I feel it is in a parallel universe. What is worth speculating on, I think, is how de Fombelle makes the choices between accuracy and setting.  The author creates a powerful fantasy that is atmospheric enough to makes us believe in a hidden monastery in the Aeolian Islands as much as a life of marginalised young people in the Paris rooftops. Fantasy, adventure, real and imagined landscapes all are presented together in a jumble. His own travels enrich de Fombelle’s writing.

Garner, rooted in his land and its past, however, offers a different challenge: fantasy in a “real” (I’ll come back to this) landscape. In doing so, he offers up for appreciation a topography of Staffordshire and Cheshire and Derbyshire –  his corner of the world – that I am trying to explore in textual and actual exploration. Solvitur ambulando: de Fombelle has his Zeppelin; Garner has his walking boots.  Visits are vital, Garner seems to say, reading is important. Get out the map, prepare your research tools. This is underlined in Rob Macfarlane’s essay The Gifts of Reading which, like so much of his writing makes me want to put my boots on, take my kettle and a sleeping bag and walk off. His description of the “famously ornate style” of Patrick Leigh Fermor’s “hopschloss” across a doomed Europe struck me as a good connection with Garner:

Almost everything in his prose leads to something else (path to path, culture to culture, word to word)and this abundance of connection is itself a kind of offering up, or giving away. You feel, as a reader, passionately- perhaps even at times oppressively – hosted: Read this! Look here! Listen to that! Walk this way!

This is where the “reality” persists: we walk a geographically recognisable path through the adventures of Colin and Susan in Weirdstone and Gomrath; we have that path snatched away from us in Boneland. We are challenged to walk this way, and that, and that again (to use Garner’s own story, to go this way and that as lead by the Wizard, by Seven Firs and Goldenstone) to accept the Man in Boneland as the metaphor for the story of the area, as the first teller of the Garner Ur-Myth, in the Garner landscape. A deeper read, time spent reading the topography and archaeology (Read this! Look here!) of this small, magic area, and I am still challenged to accept the Garner philosophy of story and landscape. Ludchurch is an ancient cultic site before Gawain learns his lesson: Alderley is a place to encounter the uncanny before its landscaping for the visitors from Manchester.

So how “real” is all of this? What do I mean by “real”?

I mean, at one level, that I have been there. It is as de Fombelle’s Paris: I can see the bones of the authors’ settings. I do not need the streets to be named exactly, but more or less, this is Paris, this is Cat’s Tor…  At another level, something is impelling me to look at Ludchurch and Alderley and Thursbitch in a different way. His meticulous scholarship tells me there are interpreters’ paths to follow, with James Dakeyne and Frederick Hackwood and Robert Plot, and geologists and archaeologists: this is at once a verifiable landscape and its own stage set on which Garner has placed not only his characters – Colin, Sal, Jack, the Man – but a maze of metaphor for us to pass with them.  If it was easy for Macfarlane to forget, in the midst of his time in China that

literature might be there to thrill, perplex or amaze,

Alan Garner’s landscapes are there to tell us that “dreaming in Ludcruck,” telling the myth of a place, is at once to be playing with history and geography – and astronomy and archaeology- and yet is nevertheless a “true story.” He goes way beyond de Fombelle in playing with visitabke settings, and it is enough for now to ask why.  The sonorous beginning to Garner’s 2010 lecture gives the best clue as to his intent:

the uniquely human quality: our ability to derive a sense of belonging through oral tradition, to create relationships with place through story.

and maybe that is as far as I can get tonight.

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The kettle for his tea boiled over

I haven’t been able to source the story in which Oscar Wilde is reported as having once said that ” the Bible begins with a man and woman naked in a garden and ends with startling revelations,” but it serves as a warning for those that wish to précis any complex work. “Two blokes fight over a woman and then bond. One of them dies and the one left questions everything” (Gilgamesh). “Arrogant posh boy is shamed in magical-realism bed-hopping drama” (Gawain). “Home from university, privileged guy embarks on a killing spree.” (Hamlet). They don’t work. So I am wary of a précis of William Mayne’s Earthfasts; this is Young Adult fiction before the genre; fantasy fiction with (as I read it) subtexts galore. Mayne is not alone in this landscape-and-legend venture, and some of the complexities arise, maybe, from the innovative aspects of the book; some of them arise (and this will be my main theme) as the legacy of his tarnished reputation. That euphemism is insufficient, but will do for now.

Earthfasts begins with the intense but unequal friendship of two teenage boys in a small Pennine town. David leads, with his “grave way…of deliberating and then pronouncing.” (page 24 in the Puffin 1976 edition I have in front of me). His father is the local doctor, and even his swearing “sounded respectable and necessary.” (25). Keith has deeper roots in the valley (it is Keith who defines the eponymous Earthfasts (75), whose father knows the local policeman (91), whose mother (165) is related to Farmer Watson) and in the story itself. He is marginalised a little in the intellectual journey of secondary education (67, 109), but remains the sensitive heart of the friendship. The class distinction between the two boys is present but not overdone. As the story develops Keith becomes the protagonist- sort of: David’s absence and return hang over the final section. Their age is hinted at but not made explicit: the concepts they play with, the homework they do, their independence, suggest to me they are perhaps 17, but I’m willing to rethink this. The narrative concerns the discovery of an eighteenth-century drummer boy, Nellie Jack John Cherry, the invasion of the modern world by other phenomena (a boggart, moving standing stones, giants, a herd of swine) culminating in a confusing, menacing encounter with King Arthur. There is some landscape writing of a very high order (63, 73), there are moments of horror ( 143ff: for me the creepiest writing in the story) and ingenious plot devices such as the inextinguishable candle (e.g. 170ff): flashes of inspired writing.

William Mayne was a prolific children’s writer, able to command a wide readership. His reputation plummeted with his conviction for sex with under-age girls, to the point where critics have asked whether his books should be read at all.  Part of the argument – and not the part I’m concerned with here – moves into the territory around people like Eric Gill, whose artwork is still admired, even to being a focus of religious devotion, despite his systematic abuse of girls. This is, for many people, a complex argument: how can sublime religious art be suppressed, or how can we continue to admire the output of a monster? I want to look at this in a slightly different way: Mayne’s book, Earthfasts, is not of this order anyway: the structure is weak at times, the ending feels rushed, and the ways in which the small town reconciles itself with a year of paranormal experiences are imperfectly set out.

“Earthfasts begins with two teenage boys’ close friendship and ends up with one of them in a bath with another boy.” I read Earthfasts as a curious mixture of fantasy novel and closed gay text. First published in 1966, this is understandable: the youth with whom David finally bonds (“Tha’s reet mucky,” says middle-class David in Nellie Jack John’s own argot, as they bath together, 186) is first unearthed as David and Keith explore a buried, insistent drumming; the candle the drummer leaves is hypnotic and compulsive (see below); there are persistent references to touch and physicality (“He was trembling all over and so was Keith. They stood clinging to each other…”, 14, with other passages passim, e.g. 17, 22, 34, 98, 117). It is a far cry, of course, from Patrick Ness’ More Than This, where one of the pivots for the story is a selfie of the protagonist in bed with his boyfriend but it seems to me that, once seen, it is inescapable. I’m not sure if it needs saying, but I am happy with all of this, so far, text or subtext.

Once seen. I have the haziest of memories of my first reading, but I think it was flushed with nostalgia, and that I read it in Enfield when we’d moved from Burnley. I didn’t read the relationship between the Earthfast boys as any more than a friendship when I was first reading it (I’m not sure “homosocial” was a word in the sixties, and I wouldn’t have met it or understood it anyway at twelve or thirteen), despite identifying with David and Keith in more than the common ground of the Pennines. I remember being disappointed by the TV series when I watched (and abandoned) it in the 90s. However, the possible other reading struck me on this next, much later reading, which I did because of the work we’re doing on Garner. This could be because I was too close to it, or because I didn’t understand the idea of subtext, or – and this is my disquiet- because it is knowing something about the sexuality of the author alerts me to reading his stories differently. Lady Muck, for example, is about temptation not resisted, and recurring in Earthfasts is compulsion and destruction. Look, for example, at how Keith, after David’s disappearance, is drawn to the same hypnotic experience with the candle in the tin:

The candle called him twice a day after that, at odd times. He grew used to it. The first three or four times he started up and went to whether the tin was, but the call died as he did so. Then he knew the feeling as it came, and let it wash over him. He had to, in fact, because once he was in the bus, and another time in church and the third time in assembly…By standing still he could outlast it, but the usual way of overcoming was no good. Whilst the urge was on him he could not think of anything else… (146-7).

So my question is: am I now reading a book written for younger readers not only with adult eyes but with an informed perspective that encourages me to read intentions where there are none? The irrational world that breaks into the village with the disruption the pigs introduce is dangerous and destructive carnival (96), but is it any more than that? Keith’s long-past kissing of a girl at primary school (65) is a poignant image but in the context of sharing the “erect and undimmed” candle with David, is it a sign of more desired, or missed? Are all of these subtexts for (another anachronistic term) gay adolescence, or for the darker themes of a different illicit sexuality?  Is the reader-critic entitled to ignore these as too extreme, in much the same way as this blog title suggests that not every incident teems with hidden, sexual meaning?

How much is a text, escaping from the writer, simply a text? Does its harking-back to the author (Auden, Wilde, Shakespeare, the Gawain-poet) and their context really inform our understanding?  Am I in danger of it distorting rather than informing my critical reading?
Reading Earthfasts with a jaundiced eye, I am unsure. I worry I could simply be a new Mr Meyerburg from Cold Comfort Farm.

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Green Thoughts: time and space in Thursbitch and Boneland

It is interesting to speculate on the role of a complex author such as Alan Garner and whether he can be counted a “green writer” – or whether that kind of nomenclature is at all useful. He is not writing the polemic of George Monbiot, whose  lyrical, engaged prose in work like his Feral has an explicit moral tone. In critiquing (p215) a Wildlife Trust’s management plan, for example, Monbiot writes

“…invasive and undesirable species are native trees such as rowan, sallow, birch and hawthorn, returning to their natural habitat… [A]t great expense, it sustains the ambiance of a nuclear winter.”

Powerful advocacy. We might, however, contrast Garner’s use of trees at the moving death of the eighteenth-century protagonist in the final scene at the end of Thursbitch:

“If I’m to rest tonight in this flowery valley, tell them to put me in my own fold, so as I’m close to you. Then, tell them, put at me head a pipe of hornbeam, for sweetness, a pipe of holly, for sadness; a pipe of oak, for wildness. Then when the wind blows it must play.”

They are writing for different purposes, of course. Monbiot, to state the baldest argument, has a concern for place and the future, while Garner’s project is place and the past. Jack Turner seeks a resting place and finds it at the intersection of myth, legend and a mystical experience of the powers that shape his cultic space. The end of Boneland offers a similar set of images, of story at the heart of land and belonging. The modern protagonist Colin walks free of his nightmares (to some extent) and the Paleolisthic Man rests, his story passed on. Garner is even bold enough to cite the rhythmic refrain from the local story of the sleeping knights as the past and present protagonists become one, walking

…by Seven Firs and Goldenstone and Stormy Point to Saddlebole

where he (who? Colin, the Man?) see “a new story, a Dream.” Where – or more precisely when – are we in these last, beautiful rags of prose in the book? Whenever we are, we are [at] the heart of the human story, with sacred cutting of stone and Jodrell Bank. There is no simple catechism of how we might be kind to the earth, but we are at the heart of how and where we belong. This is where Garner’s “greenness” resides, where his inspiration rises like a spring on a hillside.

Lyotard (I am not an expert) suggests that the Oikeion, the “belonging to the dwelling place,” is “a relation with something that is inscribed at the origin in all minds, souls or psychic apparatuses” (in the brief but incredibly dense section “Ecology as Discourse of the Secluded” in The Green Studies Reader, ed Laurence Coupe, p135). While I can see that Lyotard is going in a very different direction in looking at the oikeion as a motivating relationship in literature, it strikes me that this brief quotation might be a way of looking at Garner as an ecological writer. That it not to say that we should choose a title like “Green Writer” and shoehorn someone we admire into a role we choose for them, but that it points to exactly the deeper relationship with the world, the deep ecology that we see in Thursbitch and Boneland. Time is a crucial part of this.

When Sal, the modern-day protagonist in Thursbitch, surveys the ruined farm at Thursbitch, she says plainly “The stones belong but the house doesn’t. What’s here is much older.” The house is a ruin, much as Sal is, and affects her so deeply that even in the challenges of her deteriorating condition, it remains powerfully in her memory. In the same way the Man, the pre-Sapiens hominin, tells the first story of his “dream in Ludcruck” in Boneland and thus passes to modern humans, to the early Cheshire people, his story,and gifts for the future  his song

To dance in Ludcruck to cut the rock and to keep the sun from death.

Story (song, dream) help us pass out of a linear view of place into something else, something that loosely is called Heritage (however that term is used and abused by the tourist industry these days).

Garner is concerned with belonging in time and space, and the non-linear peculiarities of his stories only serve to point out how difficult it is to come to terms with. Place is powerful not only because of our use (or abuse) of it, but because of our intimate relationship with it, inextricably linked to our experience of time. Nails grow at the same rate as tectonic plates shift. Sal sees Jack Turner and he sees her. Is she Sal at the end, or Jack’s wife Nan? Characters and objects move through spaces and time in a very fluid way: myths represent themselves in the Owl Service, historical episodes and artefacts merge and confuse in Red Shift, in the earlier works Weirdstone and Gomrath, Garner plays with story and legend and language in ways that even the powerful adult third episode in the trilogy, Boneland, only half resolve. He is acutely aware of how inhabiting a landscape places the writer – maybe the reader – in a place but not necessarily in time. As he ends his meditation on the alder copse in Arboreal, “the dead men in the ground had worked the same land.”



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Born Among Knives and Scissors

I have begun this post three times and deleted each one. All I want to do is make some sense in a confusing time, and while solvitur ambulando is a great motto, maybe I can write it out, instead.

Over and over I come back to Auden and his line “Nothing now can come to any good.” It seems a good place to start in a dark time, politically, socially: there seems more hate, more deceit, more cruelty around than I can wade through. So then I read Larkin: “to sit with bricks around you/While the winds of heaven ball…” I read Merton, too, who gave me the title of this post, and come back again to his raw and angry Captives:

It is the bulls’ day. The citizens

Build themselves each hour another god

and fry a fatter idol out of mud…

and I could so easily think that the news, and the voices of Twitter’s educational bullies, and single-issue political big mouths were everything. It is too easy: this is my Enough is Enough. Too easy to be swept up into it all, the sniping, the half truths, the pain, the awful, awful killings. It would be easy, too,  to see religiosity, where piety deliberately separates from other concerns, as the refuge. Captives does not end in alienation, however, but in a sort of nostalgia:

May language perish from  my tongue

If I do not remember thee, O Sion , city of vision,

Whose heights have windows finer than the firmament…

I come back to the medieval adage  Sit pax in cella, fores autem plurima bella, let there be peace in your cell, even if outside there are many wars.

But, my God, even that is hard.

My recent reading of the great story of the Tombs of Atuan, and the ways, powerfully depicted by Ursula Le Guin, show how religion can dissemble and cloak structures of power and violence: the confusing Labyrinth under the crumbling temple, where devouring, negative archetypes dominate.  Le Guin seems to me to be at her most Jungian, and this passage from Man and his Symbols brings me back to my own disquiet about how things feel this week:

The dark side of the Self is the most dangerous thing of all…It can cause people to “spin” megalomaniac or other delusory fantasies that can catch them up and “possess” them. A person in this state thinks with mounting excitement that he has grasped the great cosmic riddles; he therefore loses all touch with human reality. A reliable symptom of this condition is the loss of one’s sense of humour and of human contacts.

Not a bad description of the lone attacker or the tight-knit group of killers – or of the wicked demagoguery of supposed allies. Not a bad warning, too, of how despair separates us, disunites us, weakens us. The loss of humanity in isolation.  I need my cell for peace – but I also need friends, and human, physical contact, and smiles and people to smile at. And I thank God I have them.



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