Another Hiatus

I guess I’m taking another hiatus, though it took me a couple of weeks to figure that out. I’ve got a really busy teaching schedule coming up this semester. If you want to “like” or “follow” or whatever it is one does, you’ll get a notification next time I post. Hoping to get back to it in a few months.

In the meantime I’ll leave you with a puzzle: why were there so few unicorns in children’s books and fantasy books before the mid 1970’s? It wasn’t until this sort of thing:

unicorn 1970's

became all the rage that unicorns started making their way into fiction with any regularity.

Dragons, in contrast, were everywhere, starting with Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon (1898) and E. Nesbit’s dragon short stories collected as The Book of Dragons (1900).

So where were the unicorns?

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

Narnia Dawn TreaderOf all the Narnia books, this was my favorite. No battle scenes, no uncomfortable journeys on foot through the wilderness, just a voyage on a dragon-headed boat to a series of fantastical isles.

I often don’t like episodic story lines — I have too much trouble shifting my attention every chapter. But in Dawn Treader Lewis made each adventure intriguing in its own right, avoiding that wearying sense of one-damn-thing-after-another. There is Eustace’s experience with being an inconvenient dragon; the island where the water turns things to gold, and the corrosive effect it starts to have on everyone’s personalities; the sea serpent that tries to squeeze the boat to pieces and must be pushed backward off the stern; the island where Lucy must go alone to read the magician’s book; the dark island (not my favorite episode but it contributes to the overall richness of variety); and the island of the feast and the singing birds.

Hating early Eustace is of course fun, though many people have pointed out Lewis’s judgemental conservatism: “He didn’t call his father and mother ‘Father’ and ‘Mother,’ but Harold and Alberta. They were very up-to-date and advanced people. They were vegetarians, non-smokers and teetotallers and wore a special kind of underclothes.” This is funny, but also deeply stupid. Less often noticed, though, is Lewis’s nastiness towards a child who prefers non-fiction to fantasy adventure, and is interested in ocean liners and motor-boats and aeroplanes and submarines. When Edmund sneers, “As if he knew anything about them,” Edmund is wrong. Do I even need to say it to a modern audience? Eustace is an Aspie.

The framework of Dawn Treader comes from a long tradition of such stories, including Greco-Roman myth (the Odyssey, Jason and the Argonauts, the Aeneid), writings of the Spanish Arab scholar al-Idrisi, and some of the Norse legends, although Lewis’s most immediate inspiration was probably the Irish immram tales. These tell of voyagers sailing west into the Atlantic in search of the Otherworld, encountering strange islands along the way. A number of specific details in Dawn Treader seem to be plucked from these.

(But while we’re on the topic, let’s do away with the idea that Lewis and Tolkien were these intrepid genius scholars of ancient manuscripts. Digging up European and Middle-Eastern folklore was hugely popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with translations and “retellings for children” pouring off of the presses. Lewis and Tolkien were late to the party. Several English-language translations of the immrama, including one for children, would have been available to Lewis.)

You may have noticed I left one adventure off my list above. This is their encounter with the slave traders on the Lone Islands. I find this episode so distasteful that I skipped it when reading to my daughter. Caspian’s encounter with Lord Bern is Lewis at his crypto-homoerotic, dominance-and-submission peak. (Lord Bern, by the way, may decry “vile traffic in man’s flesh,” but apparently has no problem owning a slave himself.) This sort of thing would be all good fun in, say, an episode of Outlander. But in a children’s book it is faintly horrifying. Then there’s also the matter of Caspian’s might-makes-right takeover of the Lone Islands, made palatable by his gang having prettier costumes and flags.


Prince Caspian

Prince CaspianThis is arguably the weakest of the Narnia books. (I don’t mean the worst, merely the weakest.) Lewis didn’t seem have any new ideas yet for what to do with Narnia, so he essentially reworked the first book. The children come to save Narnia from the grip of a foreign power that is hostile to “real Narnia,” “old Narnia.” There is a gearing up for battle and then the children separate, the boys staying to show their manliness in combat, the girls riding with Aslan on a joyous Bacchanalia to awaken allies.

This is not, from the point of view of a child devotee, neccessarily a bad thing. In the wise words of my friend Susie (regarding a different series), “it’s like getting to read your favorite book over again for the first time.”

But in virtue of it being a re-tread we do spend most of the book in Narnia, and for the last time. Remarkably, the Narnia books are not primarily set in Narnia. They take place mostly beyond its borders: to the East or North or South or West; before it begins or after it ends. Narnia is the anchor, the thing we are always trying to get back to, but it is not the main event.

C.S. Lewis wrote a book of essays called Surprised by Joy, about his conversion to Christianity, but it turns out his definition of “joy” was a terribly warped and sad one. According to Miller’s invaluable book, he was talking about the sudden, piercing longing that can strike a person, when a sound or sight conjours up a vision of something you desperately want and can never have. For some reason, for Lewis, this was “joy.” And this is why we can’t spend prolonged time in Narnia. To do so would be to replace longing with ordinary happiness.


Narnia: How to tell kids about symbolism

Narnia King Lune

I guess it’s Narnia Season! If you don’t like Narnia, maybe skip my blog for the next month or two. (Or, come on in and tell us why you don’t like Narnia.)

In the post before last, I mentioned that Laura Miller, author of The Magician’s Book, came to feel betrayed by Narnia in different way than I did. Miller was raised in a Christian tradition of guilt and tedium, and what (she thought) she found in Narnia as a child was a glorious escape from all that. When she realized the truth she was horrified.

I, on the other hand, was still a believer when my 5th grade teacher laid out the allegory for us point by point. I was never fooled into thinking Narnia was secular or pagan. And I personally thought it was awesome. I felt like I was being initiated into some kind of Masonic-like secret. (My own later sense of betrayal came when I realized how, despite all the fauns and fountains, C.S. Lewis’s world view was rotten to the core. More on that in a later post.)

What strikes me now, looking back, is how naturally we all took to the idea of allegory (or metaphor, or symbolism, or whatever you want to call what Lewis was doing). Whatever else one might say about Lewis, he did symbolism right, in a way that enhanced the emotional impact of the story, and in a story that had its own inherent appeal.

So it came about that I was shocked to my core by the high school death-march through Bartleby the Scrivener. This probably had something to do with me not taking a single literature course in college. As far as I was concerned, the experts were doing it wrong.

Even as a post-college adult, trying to take a more nuanced look at the issue, I have been disappointed. For a time I was an Isak Dinesen fan, and after the movie Babette’s Feast came out I made a point of tracking down the original story. The writing is masterful, and the allegory — briefly, Babette gives up everything she has to provide a feast for twelve people who at first do not know how to appreciate it, but by the end are transformed — is delicately handled and holds one’s attention.

But the problem is, the story entirely fails to work at a literal level. TAKE THE MONEY AND RUN, BABETTE!

The literary world was so taken with this feat of extended metaphor that they seemed not to notice that such devices should be there to serve the story, not the other way around.

So that is the tale of how Narnia spoiled me forever for Serious Literature. Join us next week for a look at Prince Caspian.

The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe

Lion Witch WardrobeIt is a terrible thing that Lewis’s publishers posthumously decided to issue the Narnia books in chronological order of the events, rather than in the original publication order. They claim it was Lewis’s wish, but the evidence for that is extremely flimsy — a letter he wrote to a child fan, apparently answering a question about the order of the events in the books.

The fact is, nothing else but The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe could be the beginning of Narnia. It is the well-spring, the source; and only the most tone-deaf of editors could think otherwise.

Two things set LWW apart from the other books. First, it is the only one in which Narnia is not populated with humans. It is a world that belongs to the animals and tree spirits and mythological creatures. I think, at some level, many readers continue to believe they are in this Narnia throughout the books, despite all evidence to the contrary. But starting immediately with Prince Caspian, we are in a world where humans not only live but dominate. There is Telmar, Archenland, Calormen, Terebinthia, the Seven Isles, and the Lone Isles, all populated by humans.

A hand is waved, in Prince Caspian, at the idea that all humans in this world must have come from Earth (hence the Telmarines are descended from people who stumbled through a portal), but essentially, all the countries of the Narnian world except Narnia itself have an indigenous human population. (The earth couple that become the first queen and king in Magician’s Nephew? Apparently their offspring populated every country except Narnia!) And even Narnia proper falls into human hands, with the Telmarines who choose to remain forming a large percentage of the Narnian population thereafter. It’s hard to say whether this makes Narnia lose part of its charm, or whether it takes on a different kind of charm. (Certainly for fans of medieval European culture, it’s a win.)

Narnia Beaver's houseThe second way in which LWW stands out is in its lack of internal consistency, which might seem to be a flaw but instead is arguably the heart of the book. This is a land where Nordic dwarfs rub shoulders with Greek fauns, where Father Christmas makes an appearance defying all logic, and where the beavers eat ham and onions and potatoes and bread and butter and marmalade and tea, with (as Laura Miller points out in The Magician’s Book) no pigs, no cow, no plowed fields, and no climate for growing oranges or tea. None of that matters, in the first book. It is all sheer imagery, evoking a magical world that suits one’s heart’s desire. The beavers represent snug, industrious, thriving rural folk; of course Mrs. Beaver has a sewing machine and Mr. Beaver has tobacco.

It is later, when Lewis tries to develop a consistent history, geography, economy, and cosmology for Narnia, that he gets into trouble, and the inconsistencies become a problem instead of part of the charm.


The Magician’s Book: A Skeptic’s Adventures in Narnia (2008)

Magician's BookWell, friends, I’ve avoided it long enough. We need to talk about Narnia.

Laura Miller, author of The Magician’s Book, describes it this way:

In one of the most vivid memories from my childhood, . . . I’m wishing, with every bit of myself, for two things. First, I want a place I’ve read about in a book to really exist, and second, I want to be able to go there. I want this so much I’m pretty sure the misery of not getting it will kill me. For the rest of my life, I will never want anything quite so much again. The place I longed to visit was Narnia.

That pretty much accords with my own experience. My fourth grade teacher (who was a huge Narnia fan) read the books aloud to us during after-lunch read-aloud time. (Do teachers even do that any more? If not, what a loss!)

Narnia reepicheep feastNarnia Aslan's army

I fell desperately in love with the fauns and the dryads, the waterfalls and green meadows and forests, the midnight dances, castles, feasts, and most of all the sense of emotional purpose. The dullness of public school, 1970’s fashion, barren southern California, ugly architecture in the newer parts of my town, and worst, peers who seemed to want nothing beyond this, made me despair for anything worth having in life. I would have disappeared into Narnia if I could.

What is it about Narnia that had this kind of effect on so many imaginative, bookish children? There are many, many fantasy books out there, but relatively few inspired the kind of urgent devotion that Narnia did.

And then, also, how did C.S. Lewis manage to create this and yet go so badly wrong? And more unnervingly, are those two things not a contradiction, but intimately intertwined? Was Lewis’s beautiful vision inextricable from–in some ways born from–his twisted authoritarian values and his fixation on suffering as noble?

Laura Miller explores these issues in The Magician’s Book, which I avoided reading until recently because I feel like way too much ink has been spilled about the Inklings, and about Lewis in particular — most of which seems to willfully miss what’s really going on. But Miller nails it. She and I differ on a few points. Her path to discovering she’d been betrayed by Narnia was very different from mine; and she gets a little too literary-analysis-woo-woo for me in a couple of places. But for the most part she is level-headed, insightful, and merciless.

I’ll have much more (perhaps too much more!) to say in future posts, but in the meantime I highly recommend The Magician’s Book for anyone who gets what I’m talking about in this post.

More about Robert Lawson

FerdinandMr. Popper's PenguinsLawson’s career as an illustrator is best know from The Story of Ferdinand (1936), and Mr. Popper’s Penguins (1939).  But his first effort was for a truly terrible sounding book, The Wonderful Adventures of Little Prince Toofat (1922). He also illustrated for, among others, Margery Williams (of Velveteen Rabbit fame, though he didn’t illustrate that). Over the years you can see the emergence of Lawson’s characteristic style (left to right: frontispiece from Prince Toofat; The Wee Men of Ballywooden; From the Horn of the Moon; The Hurdy-Gurdy Man).

Little Prince Toofat

Wee Men of Ballywooden

From the Horn of the Moon

Hurdy Gurdy Man





I Discover Columbus

Mr. Revere and I

Captain Kidd's Cat

After his success with authoring Ben and Me (1939), he wrote three more books with the same concept — a historical character seen through the eyes of a companion animal. These were I Discover Columbus (1941), Mr. Revere and I (1953), and Captain Kidd’s Cat (1956).

They Were Strong and Good

Rabbit Hill

Mr. Twigg's Mistake-1ysnmvg

He also tried his hand at several other kinds of stories. His next effort after Ben and Me was They Were Strong and Good (1940), a fictionalized account of some of his ancestors. The irony of the book’s title was apparently lost on him when he was writing about his family owning slaves, or looking down on the Native Americans whose land they were squatting on. Lawson’s toe-the-line patriotism (“None of them were great or famous, but they were strong and good. They worked hard and had many children. They all helped to make the United States the great nation that it now is. Let us be proud of them and guard well the heritage they have left us.“) strikes me as particularly nauseous, as I am currently reading some works by post-Civil-War black authors like Ida B. Wells and W.E.B. duBois. I’m kind of fed up to my teeth with the excuse that people didn’t know any better back in 1940. They knew perfectly well. They just thought it was A-OK.

Rabbit Hill (1944) is very much in the tradition of folksy fables peopled by talking animals. Mr. Twigg’s Mistake (1947) is about an overdose of vitamins that causes things to grow outlandishly big. Neither of them are especially interesting or well-written by today’s standards, and both contain hints of racism.

Overall, I would count Robert Lawson as “Overrated.” I find his drawing style unappealing (stiff and unnatural on a large scale, creepily over-realistic in the details), though he initially earned his reputation as an illustrator. And he never became more than a merely adequate story-teller, though he rode the wave a couple of high-profile awards.

Still, I did enjoy Mr. Revere and I.

Ben and Me (1939)

Ben and MeI wish I’d picked a different book to read this week! I read Robert Lawson’s Mr. Revere and I as a child and quite liked it. But Ben and Me was illustrator Lawson’s first attempt and authoring, and it is a clumsy effort.

A mouse named Amos comes to live in Benjamin Franklin’s house and gets involved with his experiments and other work. At first the conceit is that Ben isn’t particularly bright, and most of his ideas come from Amos. But that gets dropped in favor of Amos being an unreliable narrator, thinking he’s “helping” when he’s making things worse. Then both of those get dropped for the idea that Ben simply has a dangerous mania for electricity. But the least appealing part of the book is that Ben and Amos have a unpleasant, antagonistic kind of “loyalty” to each other, sometimes crossing the line into cruelty.

Still, Lawson gets credit for taking a rather dreary genre of children’s books, the fictionalized account of colonial American history (think Johnny Tremain or The Matchlock Gun), and treating it irreverently and humorously, in a way that an actual kid might want to read.

What I found most interesting, though, is that it was clearly source material for two later and much more famous books about sentient mice.

Stuart Little

First there is Stuart Little (1945). It is impossible to read about Stuart’s little conveniences and arrangements, his vehicles and his meals, and not be reminded of Amos. (Top right: Stuart. Bottom left and right: Amos.)

Stuart Little bed





Ben and Me Amos

Ben and Me Amos 2







RescuersThe second is The Rescuers (1959), which likewise gets a lot of fun out of mice making a cosy life in human habitation.

Rescuers pipe fireplaceBut the inspiration goes much further. Amos goes with Ben to France, where he visit embassies and meets a beautiful aristocratic white mouse who needs his help. Amos is rough and inelegant compared to her, but is stalwart and resourceful. With the help of a third (boy) mouse, they stage a daring rescue. (Top right: Miss Bianca, Nils, and Bernard of The Rescuers. Bottom left: Miss Bianca and Bernard. Bottom right: Madame Sophia and Amos watching a French aristocrat.)

Rescuers Miss Bianca

Ben and Me aristocrat mouse








Next week, more about Robert Lawson, who also illustrated Mr. Popper’s Penguins and The Story of Ferdinand, and was also kind of a big awful racist.

Misty of Chincoteague (1947)

Misty  There is a herd of semi-feral horses on the island of Assateague, off the coast of Virginia and Maryland. Once a year, on Pony Penning Day, the islanders of neighboring Chincoteague drive the horses across the channel. They auction off the foals and some of the adults, after which the remainder of the herd is released back to Assateague.

Misty of Chincoteague was written by Horse Book Person Marguerite Henry, who was already known for Justin Morgan had a Horse and went on to write King of the WindBrighty of the Grand Canyon, and more Chincoteague books. She lived in Wisconsin, but she visited Chincoteague to prep for this book.

This book is for a fairly young audience, both in terms of the writing and the story. Paul and Maureen are desperate to buy the legendary Phantom, a mare who has eluded capture the past two years. They save up money, and Paul gets to ride with the salt-water cowboys to bring the horses across. But Phantom has a foal! They must buy both! But someone else buys the foal! But they get the foal back!

Now they have both Phantom and Misty. Misty takes to human society easily, but Phantom is half-wild and only learns to be ridden with very slow careful training. Then, this being a horse book, there is a HORSE RACE! Where the wild proud horse that could never be ridden is ridden by the child who has no horseracing experience, and WINS! Because, as the children knew all along, this is the special-est horse ever.

Then Phantom returns to Assateague, where her wild heart belongs. The children lose Phantom, but get to keep Misty.

It should be noted that the gender politics are just terrible, even for 1947. Paul does everything, from rounding up the Phantom and getting her and Misty across the channel safely, to riding her in the race (they pull a wishbone for it, but you know Maureen was never going to win), to making the decision to release Phantom without consulting Maureen. Throughout, Maureen is his meek and devoted helper.

Maguerite Henry also gets her facts wrong about wild horses — not just exaggerating but romanticizing the idea of a harem controlled by a dominant stallion. Wild horses (really, feral horses), live in a herd that is broken up into bands, each band consisting of a dominant mare, several other mares, and their young. There is usually a stallion hanging out with them, though sometimes two or three or more. The stallion only stays with the band for a year or two before moving on.

Another interesting point to note is that the island of Assagteague is fenced right across at the Virginia/Maryland border. On the Virginia side the horses are only semi-feral, getting rounded up once a year so it’s hardly a surprise, and even getting regular vet checkups. On the Maryland side, they are left wild, the only interference being horsie contraception so the population doesn’t get out of control. (Although they do wander around the campgrounds, so maybe not all that wild.)

Horse Books! National Velvet

National VelvetWell this was a surprise.

National Velvet is not a children’s book.

I’m looking into horse books, of which I remember there being a vast number in our school library, and the first surprise was how much of the output was by a few authors. When you count books by Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague), Walter Farley (The Black Stallion), Mary O’Hara (My Friend Flicka), and — for those in the Antipodes — Elyne Mitchell (The Silver Brumby), you’ve got the bulk of the classic horse books. (I may be missing a few series’ from England that didn’t cross over.)

I decided to start more or less at the beginning (excluding Black Beauty which is from the 19th century and is basically Down and Out in Paris and London for horses). National Velvet is pretty far back, published in 1935.

From the first page it was obviously not a children’s book. Nothing inappropriate, just not at all geared to children and their interests and aesthetics. It is an unsparing portrait of a rural working-class English family. The father is a butcher with a slaughterhouse sharing a wall with the family sitting-room. The hired hand sleeps in former horse stall with a hole in the middle of the floor. The toddler of the family is obsessed with the idea of killing things.

Why, then, did some kids devour this book? Obviously, because it was A BOOK ABOUT HORSES. That was enough for a certain type of child to plough through the descriptions of scenery and weather, the complicated metaphors, the leaps of inference required, and the obscure regional phrases.

Less easy to explain is the choice of publishers and librarians and teachers to promote this as a children’s book. A sweet children’s book. I mean, check out these covers!

(The second book says “The Classic Story of a Girl and her Horse.” The third one says “Charming Classics” and comes with a necklace.)

Well, publishers were obviously cashing in on the movie, but as for librarians and teachers, I can only guess that they’d heard of the movie and never read the book.

Let me be clear, I think it’s fantastic when a passion for something like horses leads a child to voluntarily try out adult fiction. What I object to is the deceptive packaging, and the adult obsession with getting kids to read “classics” because it must be good for them, regardless of the actual content. (Honestly, why do people believe there’s anything to be gained by reading Robinson Crusoe, unless one is a scholar of the history of the novel?)

It’s too bad that this book has been overwhelmed by it’s movie reputation, because it’s a compelling read, and should be met on its own terms. The book is really about Velvet’s character and how she reacts to fame, coming out the other side unscathed because all she really cared about was the horse.