Place: literature as guide

This blog – or rather its predecessor – explored place rather a lot. This summer’s trip to Santorini was in part inspired by reading Clive King’s The 22 Letters; Gawain and Ludchurch (“Lud’s Church”) are all over it, too.  I have read about places and gone there; I have gone to places and read about them. I read The Canterbury Tales and Mydans’ novel about Thomas Becket and then went to Canterbury.   It set me thinking: what might I have made of Paris if I had read Vango first?  (After all, after I’d read Becket and its – erm – inspiration,  the novel by the great medievalist Helen Waddell, I was disappointed to find so little left of the Paris they describe. In fact, although there is more around Notre Dame than is immediately obvious, there is more tangible stuff left of Clive King’s Ancient Thera in the tablets of Linear B and the archaeological museums than there is of the ill-fated lodgings of the twelfth century canons of Paris.)  How do we, as adults, use the written word to tell children about the physical world? How might we (or do we) use story? How might this, in itself, change the visitor’s ideas?

And if Vango might have changed my view of Paris, what of Selznick’s Hugo Cabret? Or Kipling’s or Milne’s Sussex? I could go on…  and that’s before we start thinkng of places responding to their visitors – where Canterbury’s rebuild was prompted by its visitors, and Paris still holds the echoes of the Hemingways and Steins so wonderfully celebrated and parodied in the film Anastasia in Paris Holds the Key to Your Heart (of course Paris is particularly susceptible to this myth-making, as is Oxford, my city of aquatint and commuting).

But  then we come (of course) to Garner. The creation of the Alderley phenomenon, drawing on myth and legend, changes a bit of whimsical parkland with a few stories attached into a mythic landscape out of all proportion to the stories that we can find readily. It does so almost entirely because of the authochthonic outlook of Alan Garner. We find ourselves in this place or that seeking to see with his eyes, following his train of thought, his access to myth and legend. We are tempted to try and see his Alderley, his Thursbitch, his Ludcruck.  Gawain and Beowulf are in his sights; we peer into his horizons and try to see what he is pointing out.

But let’s broaden this out. As I have discussed before, there are clearly places that have myths or legends attached, where stories have been piled up. The Cheshire/Derbyshire border is one such; maybe Oxford is another, or Paris, or Tintagel. Part of the project I seem to be involved with is the uncovering of these story cairns – but there is another part: it is the job of the critic of children’s literature – or some of us – to look not only at what has been collected, but also at the effect of the stories on the visitors to the landscape.

What does the young visitor make (and here we are in the recent Twitter conversation that started my thinking) of Venice having read about the pig Olivia and her visit? And how might the adult draw on this in September to help the impressions of the visit stay vivid?

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