|Entertainers of the Spirit in Children's Literature
An Overall View of the Past 100 Years
storyteller and poet of our time, as in any other time, must be
an entertainer of the spirit in the full sense of the word, not
just a preacher of social and political ideals. Nevertheless, it
is also true that the serious writer of our time must be deeply
concerned about the problems of his generation. He cannot but see
that the power of religion...is weaker today than it was in any
other epoch of history. More and more children grow up without faith
in God, without belief in reward and punishment, in the immortality
of the soul, and even the validity of ethics...No technological
achievements can mitigate the disappointment of modern man, his
loneliness, his feelings of inferiority, and his fear of war, revolution
These words could have been written yesterday, to-day, or at any
time since the watershed which was 11 September 2001. They were
in fact spoken by Isaac Bashevis Singer in 1978 in his Nobel Lecture,
yet never have they seemed more appropriate and never have our children
needed more these "entertainers of the spirit".
For there is no place for cynicism or despair - two states of mind
and heart from which children should be free - where spirit
reigns - spirit as inspiration, as real meaning, as essence, as
our higher faculties of thought and feeling, spirit which
en-courages, spirit which en-thuses. And these are the criteria
I searched for and found in abundance among the vast body of top
quality children's literature of the past 100 years.
It seems indisputable that during that time the English-speaking
world (closely followed by the Scandinavians) invented, then cornered
this field and produced a long and distinguished line of writers
for readers aged somewhere - anywhere - between 9 and 90.
Is it because they all drank and continue to drink from the same
sources, the same well-springs? From the Norse myths, the Arthurian
legends; from Homer's Odyssey and Iliad and perhaps
Ovid s Metamorphoses; from the fairy tales collected by the
Brothers Grimm (not forgetting The Arabian Nights largely
garnered by intrepid British explorers of far-off lands); from the
Bible - a narrative and linguistic powerhouse (in England thanks
particularly to the King James "Authorised" Version, one
of the translators of which, rumour has it, was William Shakespeare);
from the Celtic influence with its mists, its magical, musical myths:
Mabinogion (rendered wonderfully accessible to children in our time
by Newbery Medal-winner, Lloyd Alexander in his superb Chronicles
of Prydain), Tara, Taliesin - the very names are poetry. Nor
can we leave out those "shortest stories in the world"
as P L Travers called the nursery rhymes and riddle-me-rees still
chanted in school playgrounds, still recited on a motherly or grandmotherly
Is it because our ancestors in the northern hemisphere all shared
the winter season when perhaps a passing stranger, perhaps a family
elder would have told such tales during the long dark nights as
everyone huddled around the fire, and candelight formed shadows
on the walls? It is certainly striking that this wealth of literature
does not exist in hotter, Latin climes where children are out
of doors early and late and take siestas in the afternoon.
Where does it come from - the vitality and waywardness
so apparent in Anglo-Saxon children s literature, with its fondness
for ec-centricity and non-sense, its contrariness,
its disinclination to moralise? It certainly sits well alongside
the wandering Jewish input in more recent times This meeting of
different cultures and the ensuing mix of poignant old-soulishness
and a robust enjoyment of all things absurd is particularly and
enviably alive in the United States. I am thinking here of Maurice
Sendak - and not only his masterpiece, Where the Wild Things
Are, but also of whoopy once, whoopy twice, whoopy Chicken
Soup W ith Rice ; of Mickey in The Night Kitchen, stirring
the batter of his Mickey cake with Laurel and Hardy against a
background of Manhattan s skyscrapers made out of kitchen utensils;
Dr Seuss s hopelessly helpful Cat In the Hat and Sam who
"loves green eggs and ham", and Isaac Singer s uplifting
Hannukah Power of Light stories, glowing like good deeds
in our dark world.
Between them these influences contain the fundamental experiences
shared by all human beings: birth, death, fear, courage, uncertainty,
disappointment, difficulties, fortitude, friendships, joy, love,
achievement, failure, struggle, transformations, laughter -
oh yes, plenty of laughter - challenges, journeys, search - the
myth of living itself. (Myth - which is currently for many
people synonymous with the word "lie," but which the
dictionary defines as "a story with a veiled meaning",
and, if we go further and look at the word in Greek (mythos)
we see it shares the same root - mu - with words which
signify the keeping of a certain silence in front of the secret,
There is an immense, established canon - a great canon, a classic
canon always in print or reprinting, and always being read. It
embraces all the qualities above-mentioned and a random list of
specially loved books might well include: Alice In Wonderland,
The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, The Just-So Stories, The Princess
and The Goblin and many other George Macdonald stories, The
Peterkin Papers, Little Women, What Katy Did, The Railway Children,
Five Children and It, The Phoenix and the Carpet; The Secret Garden,
A Little Princess, Heidi, Anne of Green Gables (she
whose hair went dreadfully green); John Masefield s The Midnight
Folk and The Box of Delights brilliantly combining
magic with the daily humdrum as P L Travers was to do in her Mary
Poppins books; The Wind In the Willows (if, that is,
you are happy with a story which contains no female protagonists
whatsoever); Elizabeth Goudge s The Little White Horse
[Moonacre in America] where a cherished orphan girl resolves
the dark night mysteries in the silver light of Moonacre valley
and discovers a unicorn among the trees; and Goudge s other gem,
Henrietta s House, where all the generations of a child
s beloved family come together in the woods on a timeless summer
afternoon where past and present meet and heal: all the work of
this clever, truly spiritual daughter of a Cathedral Dean is imbued
with love as caritas but never without a kind and humorous
awareness of human foibles; Edward Lear and his Limericks make
us laugh, as do the American, Munro Leaf s Story of Ferdinand,
the little bull who preferred flowers to the fight, and The
Story of Horace, the bear who ate his way through an entire
and entirely indignant family; and Winnie-the-Pooh, that
very English "bear of little brain" and cold toes and
meaningless "hums." There are great horse stories such
as Black Beauty, National Velvet, The Yearling and
perhaps even My Friend Flicka. As for dogs, Dodie Smith
gave us 101 Dalmatians who live on and on in movie form.
We have elephants and monkeys in the timeless Babar books;
and rabbits are as numerous in books as they are in burrows: they
come naughty like Brer Rabbit and Peter Rabbit (surely
cousins under the skin?) less naughty - Benjamin Bunny, The
Flopsy Bunnies, and sweet like Alison Uttley s Little Grey
Rabbit, keeping the peace between Hare and Squirrel as they
watch the sun rise on Easter Day; and The Velveteen Rabbit
(in print again and again for 80 years) - who became real
through loving and being loved - (with none of the awful morality
attached to poor Pinocchio in his efforts to become "a
We have gripping stories of tougher lives than ours, such as The
Little House on the Prairie which makes one feel one was there
with the pioneering family; or there on that farm on the plains
of Hungary during World War 1 depicted in Kate Seredy s The
Good Master and The Singing Tree
On a lighter note, we cannot possibly leave out Bemelmans contrary
Parisian convent girl, Madeline, or Manhattan s own worldly
Heloise up there with Nanny in her Plawza suite,
nor the vivid evocation of boys preparing for Hallowe en amid
the bright fall leaves in the classy "spookiness" of
Ray Bradbury s Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Mice, too, have their place in this canon - Beatrix Potter s Tale
of Two Bad...; Wanda Gag s Snippy and Snappy; quirky
E.B. White who gives us Stuart Little and spiders too -
and pigs - in his gem, Charlotte s Web.
Erich Kästner s Emil and the Detectives continues to delight
and his Lisa and Lottie, one of the first children
s books to tackle divorce, has taken on a new lease of life in
the film, The Parent Trap.
There are friendly ghosts too, such as Penelope Lively s Thomas
Kempe or L. M. Boston s Children of Greene Knowe, who
return to the old, old house and the magical topiary-filled garden
by the river to play with Toby, the lonely boy so loved by his
And there are the modern epics: T. H. White - that lonely, learned,
brilliant man, who abhorred war and violence, brought Arthur, Merlin
and Lancelot to life again with yet-to-be-matched wit, wisdom, and
sorrow in his Once And Future King, for older generations
still the best re-telling since Malory s, and which would be the
inspiration for the famous musical, Camelot.. A mantle of
more modern cut fell over the shoulders of Susan Cooper in The
Dark Is Rising series, and, albeit better known for her excellent
historical novels, there is a special beauty, purity, nobility in
Rosemary Sutcliff s sadder Camelot trilogy. J.R.R. Tolkien s The
Lord of The Rings has become an international "cult"
alongside the phenomenon of his friend C.S. Lewis's Narnia books,
which, 50 years on, continue to sell and sell, read by children
who have not been brought up religiously, oblivious to the Christian
allegory, loving Aslan the lion for himself.
Between them these books contain love, laughter, courage in adversity,
fun, a sense of awe or wonder, magic, mystery, challenge, nonsense
and an over-riding quality which I call "goodness" -
the kind, as Auden once put it, "which is neither phoney
To these qualities I would add that of "magnanimity"
as defined by C S Lewis in one of his most remarkable essays,
The Abolition of Man. His cri du coeur for the education
of the feelings in children rings out as powerfully today as it
did in 1943: "The heart," he says, "rules
the belly through the chest, the seat ..of emotions organised
by trained habit into stable sentiments. The Chest (we might
now say solar plexus or heart) - Magnanimity - Sentiment
(and of course he does not mean Sentimentality) - these are
the indispensable liaison officers between cerebral man and visceral
man. It may even be said that it is by this middle element
that man is man: for by his intellect he is mere spirit
and by his appetite mere animal". If magnanimity is greatness
of soul, generosity, absence of meanness, great-heartedness, then
I think it is fair to say that magnanimity is to be found in all
great books for children, or at least a deep wish for its existence
in the heart of the author within the measure of his or her gift,
vision, degree of understanding.
During the Sixties, and continuing through the Eighties into the
early Nineties, there was a renaissance of prize-winning writing
for children - a new "Golden Age," which continued for
example, New Zealand s Margaret Mahy writing superbly and with
such sympathy on adolescent rites of passage in The Haunting,
The Changeover, A Catalogue of the Universe. In America, Ursula
LeGuin, with her sombre Wizard of Earthsea and its sequels,
produced a weighty enquiry into cosmic equilibrium, a warning
against abuse of powers. Madeleine l Engle tackled mystical science
fiction with A Wrinkle In Time. In the UK Philippa Pearce
wrote brilliantly about other aspects of time in Tom s Midnight
Garden. Catherine Storr broke new and therapeutic ground with
Marianne Dreams and Leon Garfield, a very fine writer of
historical novels and biblical re-tellings, co-authored, The
Gods Beneath the Sea, the best re-telling of Greek myths I
have ever come across. Joan Aiken was pouring out exquisite short
stories of magic in modern times while her feisty heroine, Dido
Twite, was routing foes in a deliciously non-existent mish-mash
of historical backgrounds. Alan Garner overwhelmed us with The
Owl Service, a brilliant, powerful, terrifying story, a masterwork,
where modern teenagers are brought face to face with an ancient
Welsh legend come to life again. Diana Wynne Jones was at work
on her particular forms of daring mix between magic and reality
in the Chrestomanci novels and even more so in her intriguing
Fire and Hemlock and Hexwood. Norton Juster introduced
children to allegory (which might in time lead them to The
Pilgrim s Progress) in The Phantom Tollbooth. And pigs
join the other animals, courtesy of Dick King-Smith, pig-lover
supreme, out of whose books the delightful film, Babe,
will appear in the 90 s.
From Finland Tove Jansson brought us the wistful comfortless Toffle
and the better known doleful Moomintrolls. In Sweden Astrid Lindgren
continued to add regularly to her output of wacky tales of Pippi
Longstocking and Larsson on the Roof. She also wrote
the magical wintry Tomten tale and many other more
down to earth but enchanting accounts of traditional Swedish life
such as Christmas at Bullerby(every house should have a
copy), and the books about Mardie, (in America T he
Noisy Village) probably based on her own early 20th century
memories of a child raised by liberal parents well ahead of their
The American Cynthia Voigt (Dicey s Song in particular)
should be singled out for her capacity to revel in the importance
of relationships of all kinds, and a gift for tackling the fallout
from the VietNam war, racism, "dysfunctional" family
life positively, warmly, creatively, yet without ever evading
the pain of all these issues.
The late and greatly missed Robert Westall published among other
titles The Machine-Gunners, The Kingdom By The Sea, Gulf,
Falling Into Glory. His years as a teacher informed all
his writing - be it about children in war-times, or cats, or falling
in love, with an empathy that could only have come from years
of sympathetic observations and - perhaps - a painful distillation
of things he too had been through when he was a boy in the tough
Tyneside region of north-eastern England during World War II.
And of course Roald Dahl (who, around the time St Exupéry was
writing The Little Prince[in New York of all places], had
begun with a tale of airmen and gremlins in the middle of World
War II ) was at the height of his powers with Charlie and The
Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, Danny Champion of
the World (perhaps his best book of all - a heart-warming
and very funny account of a poacher-father and son relationship)
before he began to write too much, too often and until the later
genial The BFG, perhaps more thinly and too darkly...
And where to place America s controversial Robert Cormier who makes
many adults uncomfortable? He wrote for older children with immense
courage about many kinds of darkness. A man who turned everything
on its head, loved "happy endings" but knew in real life
they do not often, let alone always happen, his books are all the
more remarkable because they do not leave the reader depressed but
perhaps thoughtfully troubled in a constructive way. An important
writer for older children, he seemed to acknowledge the presence,
if not of the numinous, of forces at work greater than our own over
which we perhaps have far less control than we like to think.
Overall the daring mix of magic and realism continued to prevail,
but a new, grimmer note began make itself heard from several writers
with the courage to tackle head-on the sufferings of the 20th century,
producing classics which have rightly joined the great canon from
the more distant past.
Interestingly, where - one could say - Tolkien turned away in
his writings from the horrors of the real world he had witnessed
at first hand during World War I, these writers faced directly
the agonising effects World War II and the ensuing "Cold
War" - had on children.
Top of the list is I Am David (Going North in the USA), by
the Danish writer, the late Anne Holm. Its outer form an exciting,
inspiring story of a boy's escape from some kind of political prison
camp in Eastern Europe and his tough adventures as he tries to find
his way to his mother in Denmark; its inner form a map of fortitude
and love. His refrain, his mantra, is the 23rd psalm which keeps
him going through all his ordeals and helps him to experience a
proper sense of self. It is a rare gift to get the proper mix of
adventure and high courage without lapsing into false piety and
polemic, and Anne Holm succeeds in every sentence. Due to the vagaries
of publishing this book which has sold a million copies in translation
(and been reprinted countless times in the UK over the past 10 years)
it is not currently available in Danish and unfortunately out of
print in North America.
Another book in a similar genre is Ian Seraillier s The Silver
Sword, based on the true story of the heroism of some Polish
brothers and sisters who escape from the Warsaw ghetto during
World War II and after immense and fearfilled suffering and struggle
are re-united with their parents in Switzerland.
Michelle Magorian is another fine writer who tackled the disruption
of war in her popular Goodnight Mr Tom, in which a crabby
old countryman grudgingly takes in a poor and severely abused
boy evacuated from London under the German Blitz, and went on
to describe in Back Home the often painful adjustments
children had to make when returning to England after the Second
World War from their happy refuge in the USA.
Perhaps the reason that these books are so important is that the
conditions of the children in them are so dire that they have
no choice but to draw on the essentials of courage and effort
while also taking the terrible risk of throwing themselves on
the mercy of adults they might or might not be able to trust.
This genre of book challenges one's complacent "I'm all right
as I am" and raise the awesome question, "But what if...how
would I be if...there was a real disaster, a real catastrophe?"
The same questions apply to Russell Hoban s masterpiece The
Mouse and His Child - a book that was first published in 1967
and is still being discovered with delight. Seemingly in
a world far removed from wars, politics and other crimes and misdemeanours,
the mechanical mouse and his dancing child, wound up by a key
get broken and abandoned on the rubbish dump overseen by a terrible
gangster of a rat. "What are we?" the tin toy child
mouse asks his father. "I don t know," the father answered".
We must wait and see..." And so begins their long journey
- and all Russell Hoban s books are about journeys - seeking to
become "self-winding" and to find a family and have
home of their very own. It is not until they finally sink, in
all senses, to the very depths - in their case into the depths
of a very muddy pond, and with the help of some very strange friends,
that they remember what they had already known but not understood
- that if you look up you can see the stars, and a battered kind
of redemption and happiness is achieved by all.
In one way or another the tellers of the tales which form this
great canon make the risky but vital assumption that absolutely
anything is possible. They leap and we leap with them. They remind
me of William Blake s soaring imagination, so evident in everything
he wrote or painted, or of Chagall s fiddlers and beggars flying
over the grounded roof tops. Think of Enid Bagnold s National
Velvet. Whoever head of a little girl riding in the Grand
National, the world s most famous and most dangerous steeplechase?
Let alone winning it? Think of the night that Wendy, Michael and
John Darling flew out of their conventional nursery with Peter
Pan. The boy in Roald Dahl s short story for older children, The
Swan, whose only hope was to fly up and away from the fearful
And Russell Hoban s frog who has the temerity to order a bird
to drop the wretched mouse and his child - "STOP" orders
the frog and the bird obeys - and the story can go on, because
certain laws have been briefly stood topsy-turvy. "What if?"
say these writers. "Just supposing...Just imagine...What
are we? Who am I? I am David...I am me...I can have a proper sense
of self..." For here we are talking of stories where verticality
meets horizontality - where the horizontality of linear time crosses
a verticality where an action becomes possible now.
So, we arrive at the present day and a new century with a vast
library of excellent children s literature "aback of us"
as Alan Garner might say.
Who are the new entertainers of the spirit? Does their entertainment
differ from that of the past? Do the old certainties hold fast
now, or are there new concerns?
There do seem to be two distinct kinds of writing which can be
currently identified - certainly in the United Kingdom: social
realism and fantasy.
We have social realism in abundance from the skilled, sympathetic,
supportive pens of such authors as Anne Fine (famous for Madam
Doubtfire, The Flour Babies, Goggle-Eyes, The Tulip Touch and
currently "Children s Laureate" in the UK) and Jacqueline
Wilson who manages to evoke the deepest empathy in The Illustrated
Mum with the manic-depressive mother of the title as well
as her long-suffering children. Like Anne Fine, but perhaps lacking
the former s wicked sense of humour, Wilson can write brilliantly
about present-day problems before which most authors quail - from
bed-wetting, by way of divorce to the death of a special school-friend.
Berlie Doherty wrote a fine book about teen-age pregnancy (Dear
Nobody), but also has a real gift for looking back at earlier
times and the hard lives of working women (Grannie Was A Buffer
Girl) and in her gentler way holding the interest of her readers,
both boys and girls.
And perhaps here, on a far darker note, mention should be made
of Britain s controversial Melvin Burgess, who had the courage
to write seriously and terrifyingly about drug-taking, and heroin
in particular, in his Junk, which it is known has had a
positive impact on young, thoughtful teen-agers.
The prolific Michael Morpurgo who won prizes for his War Horse
(World War I seen through the eyes of a horse) has tackled
ecological issues with stories (to name but a few)about whale-saving
in Why The Whales Came,, survival in Kensuke s Kingdom,
hoof and mouth disease in Out of the Ashes, and social
issues such as poverty and disintegration alcoholism, and glorious
redemption in old age in his particularly fine book Billy The
Kid. He is one of the rarer breed of authors who really do
appeal to boys. The South African author, Beverley Naidoo won
a well-deserved prize recently for her book about the children
of a political Nigerian family sent on their own to seek asylum
in the United Kingdom, The Other Side of Truth is a good
story in its own right, but also one which stirs the conscience
of those on the sidelines of this experience,and may really help
eyes to be opened, attitudes to change.
There are still far too few books for black children although
there is an increasing number of re-tellings of Caribbean folk
tales such as Anansi the Spider and a number of very good
black poets (including Benjamin Zephaniah) now contributing their
riches to the canon. The United Kingdom does not have a Jack Ezra
Keats but the heroine of Mary Hoffman s Amazing Grace is
a black heroine.
The Anglo-Indian Jamila Gavin s canvas contains many of the strands
common to "dysfunctional" society and its microcosm,
"dysfunctional" families, but on a larger scale than
most. In her trilogy The W heel of Surya she tackles the
terrible effects of partition in India in 1947 on a humble Sikh
family in the Punjab which lead to the breakdown of their life
in India, for some of them the terrifying experience of ending
up in London, encountering the unknown world of a poor but loving
Irish family. Moving between England and India in the early 50
s (and not afraid to draw on sentences from sacred Hindu texts
to make a point) she builds a poignant and dramatic picture of
how huge political and racial events - like a heavy, jagged stone
dropped into a pond - send out ripples upon ripples to upset the
lives of innocent and ignorant people around the globe, but in
the tragic process also opening up their horizons. Her most recent
prize-winning work, Coram Boy is also strong stuff. Here
she tackles the 18th century history of illegitimate babies abandoned
into the orphanage set up by Captain Thomas Coram in Bloomsbury
(for whom Handel composed The Messiah as a fundraiser).
By turns truly shocking, exciting, tender, it tells the story
of a friendship between a black boy saved from slavery and a white
"Coram Boy". Jamila Gavin s writing is deep, thoughtful,
and her ability to write about friendships which transcend race,
colour, class and continent is unsurpassed among contemporary
British writers for children.
And now for the second identifiable strand - fantasy, and in particular
the phenomenon which is Harry Potter. For it is
a phenomenon - what other books have had such an appeal for adults
as well as children? What other books have turned adults to reading
other children s books as they now are?
There has been much agonising about what it is that makes these
books such a success,, because they could be dismissed, rather
unkindly, and with the green-eyed -eyed monster prowling nearby,
they are, and if so, does it matter if they get boys reading which
they do. Or are they just a fresh take on a very old, tried, true
and much loved British tradition - the boys or girls boarding
school story - to be found in countless versions from comic books
to best sellers by such writers as Angela Brazil, Enid Blyton.
Add the glorious gabby nonsense of the famous Molesworth stories
(written by a mildly jaded schoolmaster who had somehow retained
his sense of humour and illustrated to perfection by Ronald Searle,
the great cartoonist); a dash of Roald Dahl s dark side, a pinch
or two of Mervyn Peake s, and stir vigorously while pouring in
pints of the wishful thinking of all children during school hours
that something really interesting, magical, unusual, exciting,
unexpected, inexplicable, scary, thrilling, delicious would happen
to enhance the daily round of rivalries and friendships and eradicate
boredom...and you have a sketchy recipe for the success of these
books. Perhaps too they provide a welcome escape from and antidote
to too much social realism, rather as adults turn to a good old
reliable black and white movie with a plot you can follow and
a satisfactory ending. There is, however, an uneasy mix between
the fun and games and sudden swings into much, much darker and
really frightening territory such as the account of the evil "he
who must not be named" gorging on unicorn s blood like Dracula
which is thoroughly objectionable and shows, at the very least,
complete ignorance of the mythological meaning of the unicorn,
and at the very worst complete lack of respect for that meaning.
At the end of the day it is to be hoped that aficionados of Harry
Potter will find fare of more quality and real depth in this domain
in due course.
At least it can be said that none of these contemporary authors
are guilty of cynicism or despair - two qualities which should
never make themselves felt in children s literature. They all
entertain the spirit valiantly in the teeth of the encroachment
of the cruel world which is much more, and too early known to
children for the many reasons we all know about only too well.
Who would have imagined that a reform school for delinquents in
the Texan desert would provide a very satisfying setting for a story
where the inmates are forced to dig in the sand where deadly killer
creatures lurk? Louis Sachar s Holes proves very popular
with children and parents alike as they eagerly turn the pages to
arrive at the hugely satisfying denouement where the beastly warders
get the comeuppance they deserve?
Who does not find totally irresistible the Californian newcomer,
Lemony Snicket s courageous Baudelaire children, Klaus, Violet
and Sunny, orphaned on page 1 of Book 1 of A Series of Unfortunate
Events? We cannot say we have not been warned from the outset
- if you want a story with a happy ending put the book down at
once. Disaster upon disaster befalls the Baudelaire children (Spleen
and Les Fleurs du Mal push themselves foreword from the
back of the mind each time the name comes up) - every chapter
ends with a cliff-hanger. But they never give up, never!
They are brave, innovative, look out for and help one another,
philosophical, live to fight another day in spite of the awful
grown ups who either actively intend to harm them, or at very
least fail them time upon time.
In a league of his own is David Almond. Like Alan Garner he comes
from the North of England with its powerhouse of a past and is,
also like Alan Garner - a poet with a truly original perspective
on the ordinary world around us which we so often ignore because
think we know all about it...particularly in his Skellig,
where, in rather grim surroundings, a boy and girl may, like Abraham
and Sarah long ago, be "entertaining an angel unawares"...
There are several writers in the great canon who would need an
essay to themselves, and not least among them is Philip Pullman
whose trilogy His Dark Materials (Northern
Lights, or in the US The Golden Compass, The Subtle
Knife, The Amber Spyglass) is without doubt, even
if leaning towards hubris, a towering achievement.
It is a re-working of the story of the Fall, "with its roots
planted firmly in the English dissenting tradition that harks
back to William Blake and others..." so action-packed and
startling it is almost hectic in its page-turning.
The hero, whose name perhaps intentionally is Will and
the heroine (destined to be the new Eve) move between several
parallel universes, as they battle with powers intent on destroying
"the dust" which children have about them (a beautiful
idea first hinted at in Pullman s quote from a poem by John Ashbery
"Fine vapors escape from whatever is doing the living")
- which seems to represent the creative, vital force of soul potential
without which life is not worth living. There is a Lucifer figure
and his beautiful, passionate female counterpart; a bear who makes
a formidable enemy and a wonderful friend; powerful witches of
a kind very different from Harry Potter s; proud "gyptians"
or Romanies; "mulefa" a truly original breed of loving
"animals"...; a thoughtful female physicist; terrifying
Spectres who leach the very life out of you; shamanistic explorers;
fearless pilots of air balloons;; sublime landscapes in
our world and in others; a subtil and very sharp knife capable
of cutting through what separates us from another world altogether;
we travel down into the underworld and return from that undiscovered
country, death, it seems, having been explained at last; there
are angels who no longer are entirely sexless, but, to counteract
this cheapening of their qualities, in another part of the great
tale Pullman describes them deeply and movingly "...and then
Serafina understood something for which the witches had no word:
it was the idea of pilgrimage. She understood why these beings
would wait for thousands of years and travel vast distances in
order to be close to something important. That was how these creatures
looked now, these beautiful pilgrims of rarefied light..."
But perhaps the most original and delightful "characters"
in these books are the "daemons" - animal creatures,
who represent the essential nature of their owners and who can
talk to them and from whom they must never be too far separated.
This is a lovely use of an ancient idea and understandably appeals
to readers of all ages.
He does not stint in the Dark Materials trilogy on violence
both mental and physical, shock, pain, blood and killings, but
there are also wonderful and awesome pictures on every cliffhanging
page - of the beauties and terrors of the natural universe -the
glory of the northern lights which so many of us dream of seeing
once before we die, forests filled with every kind of flora and
fauna, mountains, snow, heat, and desert...
And yet...and yet...there is something which disturbs...something
too "knowing", a hint of polemic....
Pullman confesses to the influence of Blake and indeed the books
are permeated with the same dark, angry side of that great visionary
with no sign to the last page of the other side - the side of
light, the side of love...the "lamb" side...no lamb
to lie down with the wolf...
Although it would be hard to argue with Pullman s loathing - which
is palpable throughout the trilogy - of religious fanaticism with
its sickening prejudices, his hatred of the excesses of institutional
Churches; although he puts paid in no uncertain terms to the exceedingly
unhelpful, seriously damaging image which has prevailed for far
too long of some angry old man in the sky dishing out hell
on earth, it still somehow hurts to have the Ancient of Days carted
off ranting and raving like some demented Lear, by disrespectful
Pullman has thrown up a challenging number of golden balls to
juggle with - more than any other author writing now - and manages
most of the time to catch them all...
And yet...and yet...something on the very last page is missing,
unsatisfactory...Has he thrown out the baby with the bathwater?
Has he shown enough and clearly enough the power of love? The
kind of love St Paul wrote about - intentional, conscious, creative,
without which "I am nothing", which "seeketh
not her own, beareth all things, hopeth all things, endureth things,"
and from which stems that magnanimity C S Lewis spoke of,
caritas, which goes beyond the personal? Has he missed
a third dimension, or force which would make sense of the "kingdom
of heaven" he so despises?
His list of what will be required of us to bring about what he
calls "the republic of heaven" cannot be faulted for
its humanism...and if the "kingdom of heaven" against
which he fulminates, signifies some outer, exclusive, elitist,
ordinary hierarchy how could one disagree with him? But suppose
"the kingdom of heaven" was meant to indicate some new
inner dimension of unity to be searched for, to be worked for...?
Suppose it has to do not only with "doing", but also
with "being"? What is the "vital vapor", "the
His Dark Materials certainly entertains the spirit. It
is a substantial, important work which while telling a rippingly
good tale, asks real questions, challenges received ideas, opens
up vast, daunting horizons for head and heart - beside which the
Narnia books might now seem simplistic to a degree.
And yet...and yet...there is a goodness in them which is lacking
here...and immense though the canvas is, there is little sign
of magnanimity - of forgiveness, of compassion, which are components
of the other side of Blake, the side of Paradise not only lost,
But here Isaac Singer trips up the critical adult when he says
that one of the "five hundred reasons" he writes for
children is that "they don t expect their beloved writer
to redeem humanity. Young as they are, they know that it
is not in his power. Only adults have such childish illusions"
and insists in the final part of his Nobel Lecture that "the
pessimism of the creative person is not decadence but a mighty
passion for the redemption of man"
and at once I find myself readier to give Philip Pullman the benefit
of the doubt.
What will be the effect, if any, on children s literature of the
watershed that was 11 September 2001? Will we begin to hear more
from cultures about which we at present know so little? Of what
it is like to be hungry? Homeless? Of displaced persons fleeing
for their lives in leaky boats? Or will we find an increase in
"escapism" into fantasies, science fictions, worlds
far far from our own battered planet? Or is Merlin awakening in
the crystal cave, is the spirit of the "once and future king"
stirring to inspire us on? Can "world religions" begin
to be seen afresh as great myths trying to tell us of the need
for another kind of renaissance in each one of us?
One thing is certain: quality children s literature is thriving,
flourishing and always finding ways into uncharted waters. The spirit
is being entertained in myriad ways - whether it be by social realism,
humour, nonsense, or flights of fantasy - and one can hold faith
with Singer when he says: " strange as these words may sound,
I often play with the idea that when all the social theories collapse
and wars and revolutions leave humanity in utter gloom, the poet...may
rise up to save us all..."