Running with Scissors

or: The Problem of MicroManaging Study.

At first we thought we would have a time-table, but we have given it up. We have a programme, and the hours are fixed for all big events like dinner, sleep, play and work, but our play and work lost so much force and interest by being snipped into little sections that after some hesitation we gave up the snipping altogether, and allowed ourselves to be interested in things.

Margaret McMillan “The Nursery School,” Chapter 9, pp 83-84

The McMillan project of care and education is exemplified in this book, well worth a read by those who would confine Early Years to a rather expensive version of baby farming, and describes the Nursery School as a place for refuge for children living in awful conditions and whose health suffers from lack of healthy provision – cleanliness, good food, plenty of fresh air all… ordered and fairand the health of the children perfect. They were models for educators, for families, foundation for the children, and a nurture centre where miserable children flourished. There was direct instruction in all sorts of curriculum areas, but Nursery Schools in the early C20th were not hothouses but lighthouses: beacons of good practice. The model of childhood was really one combining the child-in-need-of-rescue with a vision of a child with a right to full nurture. Note, however, that this is not a place of total do-as-you-please: there is identified need, purpose, resource: Art lessons, dance, reading, mathematics….

In the same way, a University as an institution fostering learning has identified need, purpose, resource. I looked at this fairly recently in a goodbye to this year’s Education Studies students by examining our Guiding Principles at Oxford Brookes. The model of the learner here: someone capable of learning by doing; an institution with confidence in its staff and students.

I wonder, however, whether the confusions about lines of accountability leads institutions to show a lack of confidence in its members. What are we accountable for? To whom? Let’s look at this as being accountable for student learning, and for promoting behaviours that aid that learning. Here are some of the books I might suggest my students read, for example, depending on the context. It strikes me that this (purposefully odd) selection underlines the importance of the tutor not as arbiter but guide: to nudge, not judge. You wouldn’t get a degree if you read these – unless that reading were informed by wider reading, discussion, synthesis, evaluation. Quotation alone does not make an essay, although I do recall looking at a portfolio (at another institution) where the student had been told to “put in the quote about Vygotsky to show us you read that chapter.” The dependent thinker.

I’m zipping around here, going from 1919 to the present day, and then back a bit. Cut through the noise of managementspeak, and McGregor’s model from 1966 (here, from The Human Side of Enterprise) of how one might view workers in a team is still of use here. Theory X suggests that it is management that actively drives the project by directing the workers, and

The average man is by nature indolent—he works as little as possible

He lacks ambition, dislikes responsibility, prefers to be led

Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise

Micromanaging a student experience starts from here, and it doesn’t take too many clicks to find opinions about lazy students – particularly first years. By nature indolent.

If we start, however, from McGregor’s Theory Y that

…motivation, the potential for development, the capacity for assuming responsibility, the readiness to direct behavior toward organizational goals are all present in people

Douglas McGregor, The Human Side of Enterprise

then learning and teaching become a different set of activities altogether. Riskier, perhaps for all concerned – but actually more worthwhile than the over-planned, micromanaged but beautifully accountable syllabus.

Students in Higher Education are not employees any more than they are customers, of course; the shifting sands of ideology put them closer to one end of the spectrum in some time periods and at others closer to the other end. Thus, it might in some contexts seem desirable to say to a student “This course requires you to set aside some ninety hours for your own reading” but the tone is quite authoritarian: what do we mean by “this course requires”? That also sounds a lot, although over, for example, the Brookes twelve week semester it’s seven and a half hours a week (since I’m referring explicitly to the Brookes system here, it is worth remembering that an undergraduate very often takes four modules at a time, so that is almost a full-time job: with classes to attend, it really is a full-time job!). Did I manage that in the 70s? Yes, sometimes – very often – I did: pastoral crises aside, I was reading Homer (very badly) for a weekly translation class at a rate of three books a week for eight weeks, and I regularly saw very little sleep. If I disliked the pace of work set, too bad.

But this is not a valid argument: the “I was unhappy so you should be too” approach to course design has, it seems to me, at its heart a misdirected desire for revenge. Far better to revenge oneself by turning up at a tutor’s hour reciting The Catalogue of the Ships at three in the morning1. But why do tutors set work – reading specifically – for undergraduates? What do we hope in doing this?

The pictures in this blog are partly there to identify the disciplinary shift I had to learn to manage when I moved from being, in effect, an ex-Classicist (or “lapsed Medievalist,” as I described myself) where text was the lead, to looking at educational practice where ideas and practical application are at the forefront. And yet there has always been in my work with education students, my desire to “get them reading.” Is this the change we seek? To make readers? What does Higher Education aim to do? And in a time where the norms of classes and library time are disrupted, what, at heart, are the aims of education? My first thought is to dive for a classic text:

Applications in Education. There is nothing peculiar about educational aims. They are just like aims in any directed occupation. The educator, like the farmer, has certain things to do, certain resources with which to do, and certain obstacles with which to contend. The conditions with which the farmer deals, whether as obstacles or resources, have their own structure and operation independently of any purpose of his…

It is the same with the educator, whether parent or teacher. It is as absurd for the latter to set up his “own” aims as the proper objects of the growth of the children as it would be for the farmer to set up an ideal of farming irrespective of conditions. Aims mean acceptance of responsibility for the observations, anticipations, and arrangements required in carrying on a function — whether farming or educating. Any aim is of value so far as it assists observation, choice, and planning in carrying on activity from moment to moment and hour to hour; if it gets in the way of the individual’s own common sense (as it will surely do if imposed from without or accepted on authority) it does harm.

John Dewey Democracy in Education, Ch 8 “The Aims in Education”

So why the quirky title? I have used it with University students if I have had to leave the room just as a jokey reminder of the need to stay on task; it also belongs in the death scene in Muppet Treasure Island, where Billy Bones with his last breath warns against running with scissors2. Of course it belongs first of all in the Early Years classroom where, supervised or not, running with scissors is generally frowned upon; there is risk and there is risk.

And there is risk in learning. The independence of using scissors on your own might be an early step in education, but there are others, as outdoor learning sometimes emphasises. “Even” in everyday learning and teaching, as Dewey has it, we have an acceptance of responsibility to cope with in different contexts than our usual ones. We have (Dewey again) to let go of our own aims or at least to question them seriously through reevaluation of our observation, choice, and planning in carrying on activity from moment to moment and hour to hour. The shibboleth is about “going outside the comfort zone” and perhaps the conditions for teaching and learning have been so different of late that we are very far outside that comfort zone – and seek a firm foothold in managing the student experience and recording how we manage it. Do we (Higher Education lecturers, tutors, administrators and managers of the nebulous stuff that is Quality Assurance) ourselves run a risk here: not letting the students make mistakes? Make their own choices? Not letting the students find their own way? “Read this – then this – then this” is an easy way to put together a programme of study, but a difficult habit to break when the time is right. Snipping learning into little sections (to return to Margaret McMillan) and not letting students or ourselves (McMillan) to be interested in things? After all, being interested wasn’t one of the learning outcomes. Was it?

It was and it wasn’t. The trivial round, the common task dominate our thinking. Lecture timetables, assessment deadlines. Dave Aldridge’s article (yes, go and read the original) puts it very clearly:

The descriptive understanding… leaves the materiality of university life untouched: those involved continue to memorise, recall, rehearse, assess, and implicate themselves in those activities associated with the accountability that encroaches on educational experience. Students attend or miss lectures, work part time, stay up late, participate in or shun their university’s union, and form and break relationships. Tutors struggle to find time for their research and the energy to resist institutional bureaucracy.

David Aldridge (2019) “Reading, Engagement and Higher Education.” Higher Education Reserach and Development, 38:1:47 http://bura.brunel.ac.uk/handle/2438/17145

The “materiality” of higher education is currently in a sort of ideological and procedural Limbo that reminds me sharply of CS Lewis miserable opening to The Great Divorce:

Time seemed to have paused on that dismal moment when only a few shops have lit up and it is not yet dark enough for their windows to look cheering. And just as the evening never advanced to night, so my walking had never brought me to the better parts of the town.

and like the characters in The Great Divorce, escape from this is only possible by risking something: the letting-go of worn habits of affection (or lack of it). I would suggest that “getting students to read” is another worn habit, and is part of a bigger picture foisted on Higher Education by a false accountability: students, at least the ones I have had off-the-cuff conversations with, seem to me to want to be asked to join the dance, not to know their tutors can account for every hour of the module’s learning. Again, it is Dave Aldridge who sees this as courtship, the tutor’s task being to see the student’s learning with the attentiveness of the lover.

So this certainly doesn’t mean a chaotic “pick the bones out of that” model of teaching. As Julie Fisher (yes, of one her books is in that first photo) has said Independent learning is not abandoned learning. I want students to read, I will propose work for them that will require them to look at and analyse texts from the role of therapy dog through to John Dewey, not simply so that they will read (as if that on its own will cure some ill-named ignorance, a Very Hungry Caterpillar transformation of Take-It-All-And-You-Will-Emerge-A-Butterfly), but so that the ideas they encounter will encourage them to take a risk – to think for themselves, to apply what they read about to the educational questions of why we do what we do. Systems and accountability will not suffice: we are back at the challenge of Margaret McMillan in her 1919 Nursery School: being allowed to be interested.

And if the everydayness of Higher Education is lost at the moment, we still have that as a challenge for tutor and student alike.

*

1: Actually, don’t even think of it. And certainly do not turn up at my house at any point day or night to discuss the place-language of Robert Macfarlane or to recite Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. At least, not without an invite.

2: Although if we meet in the pub and you can sing the Professional Pirate song I will be impressed.

Play as spiritual practice

I was, when it first launched, not a fan of the Hungry Little Minds campaign: its wording reminded me to the point of embarrassment of the platitudes I have spouted at Parents’ Evenings, and the refrain of every little thing you do together will help set them up nicely for the day they start school suggested that none of the aspirations of the 1980s and 90s about Early Years not being a preparation for later schooling had been heeded. This link, for example, takes you to ECF, the Early Chidlhood Forum, or at least to an overview of its history, and this takes you to its 2016 charter.

However, there are two things I see on the two posters I pass regularly: two wonderful smiling children. In this first one, Is there a tiger under the flap? the child is focussed, excited, showing (it seems to me) a real enjoyment at the experience of sharing a book. Resolutely Early Years in its focus, this sums up, for me, some key elements in these stages of learning to read: enjoying their own expectations, engaged with a book the image at least suggests they found engrossing and funny.

And in this one, I’m so glad we had this chat, the happiness is accompanied by what looks to me to be a smile of recognition: along with the excitement of entertainment is the absolutely vital element of relationship. So I am revising my feelings about these posters and the Hungry Little Minds project in total, and seeing them, as we stumble through the treacle of guidance – and lack of it, and mendacity, and goodness knows what – as a real contribution to recognising some of the wonderful work that relating to children does at home and in settings.

In the light of some very odd interventions – the SoS suggesting children should face the front, plans from serving teachers being given some prominence (and cash for the project, extending into next year), and rhetoric from both major parties about children losing out and catching up, not to mention sight of the new EYFS for the “early adopters” (a helpful comparison is in this blog post) – it seems to me that these posters show an important element in young children’s communication: delight.*

A long time back in my blogging history I did some thinking about spirituality and proposed writing about Play as spiritual practice for young children and I return (as I have in lectures; as I did time and again as a practitioner with 3-5 year olds) to Tina Bruce’s idea of play having a strong theme of wallowing in ideas and feelings.

In control of their ideas yet sending sparks with their imagination (a far cry from the new Goals, where imagination is apparently subordinate to cultural replication), a child at play is a learner alive with possibilities. Interesting to note, I think, how many metaphors I felt I needed for that one sentence: to be more straightforward, play is complex, dynamic – and I am sent back again to the post I wrote about teaching spirituality. I have asked before (in my old blog, linked here) about whether the idea of “dizzy” play and Roger Caillois’ model of the whirlpool are referring to the same phenomemon; whether play is in the ownership of the child because the child is wallowing out of the reach of the controlling adult. More metaphors; and they don’t hold together. Some steps back, then…

…and I come back to this notion of delight. When I wrote (about four years ago) that if we seek to limit play we take the edge off its imaginative, creative possibilities perhaps what I might now add is that if we seek to limit play we take the edge off its potential to delight. Why might this be important?

I suppose “delight” seems better than “fun.” Is this just a deep-seated Puritanism in me? Perhaps – but it also has an idea of irresistible attraction (St Augustine cites Vergil with the line Trahit sua quemque voluptas, everyone is drawn by their own delight although the context for the original [the dementia of hopeless love] is not especially apt). Lost in the magic of play, rather than giggling at the comic exploit.

Tina Bruce’s ideas come in here very well, and the final of her twelve features of free-flow play is of especial relevance:

Children at play co-ordinate their ideas and feelings and make sense of relationships with family, friends and culture. Play is an integrating mechanism which allows flexible, adaptive, imaginative, innovative behaviour. Play makes children into whole people, able to keep balancing their lives in a fast changing world.

Tina Bruce (2004) Developing Learning in Early Childhood – this itself is an expansion of ideas in, for example, her 1991 book Time to Play.

Interiorised, relational sense-making, holistic formation of the human, seems an important part of most recent definitions of spirituality – and helping, by this, to create a way of balance. Very close to the notion of the spiritual I have explored before where Tony Eaude writes of personal integration within a framework of relationships by fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose.

Jerome Bruner’s (complex, lengthy) essay on Why Play Evolved in Animals and Man in his (et al) compilation Play (Penguin 1976) discusses Bentham’s use of the phrase Deep Play:

Deep play is playing with fire. It is the kind of serious play that tidy and even permissive institutions for educating the young cannot live with happily, for their mandate from the society requires them to cary out their work with due regard for minimizing chagrin concerning outcomes achieved. And deep play is a poor vehicle for that.

Serious play. A vehicle for teaching the nature of a society’s convention and a contest between troubled human culture (“degrading the biosphere, failing to cope with population, permitting technology to degrade individuality, and failing to plan” [Yes this was written in 1972]) and modelling new lifestyles. This is a window into children’s play and adolescent play that looks at play as sociological formation and interpretation. The links to spiritual development seem to me to be about the kind of relational aspects I have garnered sources for recently. Where do I fit in? What is the world I am working to shape, and which is shaping me? These are much like Helen Hedges’ questions in her chapter Whose Goals and Interests? in Engaging Play (Brooker and Edwards 2010):

  • What will I do when I’m bigger?
  • What do intelligent, responsible and caring adults do?
  • How can I make special communications with people I know?
  • How can I make and communicate meaning?
  • How can I understand the world I live in?
  • How can I develop my physical and emotional well-being?
  • What is special about my identity in the place I live in?

These are not a million miles from the concerns that run through a lot of books – from, say, Ursula le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea to Dara McAnulty’s Diary of a Young Naturalist, and one of the problems about such a broad spread of notions around spirituality is that everything can be seen as having a spiritual aspect, and we run the risk of nothing being particularly spiritual. It’s a real risk: when everyone is somebody then no-one’s anybody, as Gilbert’s Grand Inquisitor puts it. But play (according to Bruce) is an integrating mechanism with intrinsic motivation and deep concentration that allows a child to be immersed in their activity, an activity arising from their own agenda. Intensely personal, rather than a space for a child to conform to an adult need. While “adult agenda” often suggests to Early Years practitioners the more formal, teacher-led aspects of school experience, there is also a danger in describing play in terms of a forum for children to ask big questions. Eaude, cited above, has a warning when he talks of fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose. His idea that this exploration and development is conscious or otherwise means, for me, that we do not have to squeeze our theoretical expectations out of children like this.

I am reminded of my first class, a Reception class suffering the visitation from a local Secondary Head (incidentally my first experience of secondary mansplaining in that he told us all [including my own headteacher] that he was in charge of all our curricula), where he bent over one child and asked “So what have you been learning today?” to which the child replied “That’s a very difficult question to ask someone who’s only four.” For children engaged in play the answer at the end of a nursery day might be “I went in the garden with Sam,” or “I got paint on my shirt.”

So let’s look again at these charming and photogenic children. They are shown engrossed and delighted in their activities: sharing a book, having a chat. Similar expressions are well known by anyone who even looks at a child gazing out of the window on a bus. The adult response – the serve and return of communication is crucial, and in the best cases, returns the same delight. When in the observations culled from being with my grandchildren I see something delightful – something that gives me joy – I hope I respond well enough. I often remember with a pang a child who came up to me to ask me something, took one look at me and said

Is this a “in a minute” minute?

Sue Waite’s 2011 article in Education 3-13 looks specifically at a pedagogy founded in a reawakening of joy in learning…the positive emotions encoraged by a rich sensory environment. She is outdoors of course: this is Sue Waite – but she makes a point applicable throughout Early Years pedagogy when she warns, in the tradition of Bruce and others that,

Contributing to, without commandeering, play situations for learning is a delicate skill and may run counter to practitioner’s expectations…The values expressed by practitioners included freedom, fun, authenticity, autonomy and physicality and were reflected in examples of child-led, real-life experiential pedagogies engaging the enthusiasm of children and adults. Nevertheless, these examples were framed by an acute awareness of external requirements and at times conflict was reported between personal aspirations and practice, the ideal and the real.

Teaching and learning outside the classroom: personal values, alternative pedagogies and standards (Education 3-13 Volume 39, 2011)

Neither the child glad to have had this chat nor the one looking a for the tiger under the flap could, I believe, have shown that delight without an element of shared enthusiasm. Our awareness of external requirements should not be allowed to chip away at what is the core of education for me: the spiritual aspect of working with children helping them grow into whole people, able to keep balancing their lives in a fast changing world.

But maybe this isn’t just the mission of the Early Years educator: maybe this is how we should look at our lives, in our families, in the shop queue, when we tun to social media. And we are back to my friend and colleague Jon Reid’s examen I have mentioned before: three ways I have shown myself some care; three ways I have cared for others; three ways I have experienced some care from others. Back to the compassion at the heart of ethical practice…

***

*It is worth noting that Alison Peacock – who contributed to the new EYFS and welcomes the changes to the curriculum – writes of the task of Reception as “joyful,” in part, I think, because of the restored primacy of teachers’ freedom to use their knowledge of the children and their expert judgement to offer a wonderful Early Years experience for all.

Belonging

A short video piece from DfE about some of the thinking behind more children returning to school and schools working on the arrangements they have put in place – note I am not going to go for the mendacious (or at least woolly) language of “reopening” – is revealing and heartening. Of course, it’s a promotional video, but I rather hope they will keep it up, although I recognise that this link may be superseded and in any case I am looking forward to a time when this kind of advice will no longer be needed. The language of the piece is interesting: lots from staff, parents and children about wellbeing and friendship. There is mention from a parent that she worried she couldn’t teach like the teachers do, and a word from a member of staff about routines, but overall the message is about children’s happiness, children’s friendships.

Joyce Bellous, in a recent and very rich article, calls spirituality – or at least one part of human spirituality – “a human capacity for connection:”

The assumption here is that spiritual work is grounded on our ability and willingness to make meaningful connections with others, and under favourable conditions, to do so in a way that improves a situation or makes the world a better place.

Joyce Bellous, An inclusive spiritual education

It is therefore part of an educator’s task

to offer children narratives to meet spiritual needs that arise in them naturally. These narratives allow children to live in peace (without anxiety) until they make workable narratives for themselves.

Bellous

I would suggest that her ideal here is worth pondering:

Spiritual work wraps itself around a willingness and ability to name ourselves authentically and situate that identity within a community of people who matter to us – to whom we are committed.

Bellous

Tony Eaude is part of this same line of thought that sees an important part of spirituality as relational:

…that which enables, or enhances personal integration within a framework of relationships by fostering exploration, conscious or otherwise, of identity and purpose…

Kathleen Harris (whose article on reconceptualising spirituality has been a mainstay of my children’s spirituality theme in the Brookes MA) suggests that school needs to be a

warm, hospitable, environment that fosters caring attachments among the child, teacher and peers, in which all children are accepted, embraced and provided authentic learning experiences.

Kathleen Harris, Children’s spirituality and inclusion

This is not a wooly utopia: she is clear, in the SEND context of her research, that this is a thoughtful and complex inclusivity which draws on major theorists’ views of development and learning and makes the plea that:

…educators must believe that the child can call upon his or her own capabilities, resilience and relationships when facing challenging situations. As this occurs, strengths support children in forming connections to the school environment and community.

Harris

…and this is where we come back to the schools featured in Department for Education’s video of schools widening their intake. Cleaning routines, different start and end times: these are important (and, yes, in some measure contestable – but this is not a blog about those tangles) but one of the parent voices has it clearly:

Oh, my child has loved it – loved seeing her friends again, loved being in the school environment: she’s very happy.

Jennifer

In other words, the message here is about the connection (multiple connections, perhaps) between happiness, wellbeing and belonging. We do not need to focus entirely on these relationships in school, but my gut feeling is that lockdown has accentuated our need for something we do well in educational contexts: provide “lots of interesting things to do and lots of interesting people to do them with.” Drumming; climbing frames; maths lessons.

It is in this day-to-day relational being that we find much of our purpose – and in which children coming back into schools will (if we get it right) find joy. This is the everydayness of compassion that we need. I hesitate to call it practice because that has, for me, the undertone of a self-conscious “doing:” we do mindfulness in schools (I’ve explored this before) rather than just try to be aware; we do belonging rather than belong; we do compassion rather than just try to be kind. The return to school systems and routines should help us simply belong, rather than the fraught attempts of a web-based Zoom, Skype, Meet or whatever: having stuff to do, the smell of the cloakroom, the sound when the ball hits that wall, seeing our friends… God, I know that need, as do lots of people who express this on social media. So it comes down to this: simply being with others who care for you.

Not every school is perfect in this, not every family, or classroom – not every University course, or retail outlet management, either. But we try, and educators have to try with a great deal of thoughtfulness over the next month or so – and I suspect ten times harder if all schools are back to full capacity in September.

To conclude, a final quotation, this time from Richard Holloway, whose Looking in the Distance is a series of essays on the possibility of a search for meaning in a world where the traditions of Christianity no longer hold sway: a very good text indeed for looking at spirituality, the roots (intellectual, linguistic, even musical) of which are so often embedded/entangled in a Christian theology it no longer espouses:.

We could choose to live as though the best meaning and purpose we can find for our own lives is the very meaning and purpose of the universe itself. We could pay the universe a compliment it probably does not deserve by living as though its purpose were love…

Richard Holloway, “Looking” in Looking in the Distance

Some sources:

NB: this blog post is very quotation-heavy because not all the sources (in terms of online journals) are readily available, and hearing the ipsissima verba of these writers seemed more important than me melling on.

Bellous, J (2019) An inclusive spiritual education. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality https://doi-org.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/1364436X.2019.1675603

Eaude, T (2006) Children’s Spiritual, Moral, Social and Cultural Development Exeter: Learning Matters

Harris, K (2007)  Re-conceptualizing spirituality in the light of educating young children  International Journal of Children’s Spirituality https://doi-org.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/13644360701714936

Harris, K (2015) Children’s spirituality and inclusion: strengthening a child’s spirit with community, resilience and joy. International Journal of Children’s Spirituality https://doi-org.oxfordbrookes.idm.oclc.org/10.1080/1364436X.2015.1086728

Little Pete

It is a sort of running gag with me that my Goodreads account ought to have a shelf on it marked “Books Mat Showed Me That Made Me Cry.” Mat has the great gift of seeing a book through and through, welcoming the shadows as well as the sunshine: often he suggests I read a book so moving, so poignant, that when I have finished I have a lump in my throat. It is good, therefore, to move from these wondrous books that wrench the heart, to a very old but certainly gold collection: the Little Pete Stories by Leila Berg. Mat, thank you for these, and for the joy they have brought as I’ve shared them with my granddaughter.

When Pete is disturbed playing at not treading in the cracks in the pavement he rails at the lady in the Bath Chair who has interrupted him:

“You’ve turned me into an elephant!” he cried.

“You don’t look like an elephant,” said the lady who sat in the chair.

“You’ve turned me into an elephant!” Pete shouted. “You’ve made me tread on hundred and millions of lines and now I’m an elephant and I wasn’t going to be an elephant till I got to the top of the hill, so I could run all the way down!”

Leila Berg “Pete and the Letter” (Little Pete Stories ch 7)

There is a knowing wink to the reader here: we all know he isn’t a elephant, any more than his personification of his shadow (which occurs throughout) is someting that is actually “true,” and we also know that Pete understands that he isn’t an elephant, but that he is expressing his dismay at an imaginative game being interrupted. The rational adults who encounter Pete’s anger and impatience usually get round it in some way, and very often this is by their involving him in something – such as posting a letter, the subject of this story – and this strikes me as crucial in Berg’s vision of childhood. Pete is not to be told “don’t shout:” it doesn’t work, although practically every adult tries it; Pete, they discover, is best distracted and redirected, but in a very specific way, in that the adults find ways of engaging him in meaningful activity.

The child’s despair is all encompassing – because he does not know gradations, he feels either in darkest hell or gloriously happy…

As Bettleheim puts it, describing the role of the Happy Ever After of becoming a King or Queen in the finale of a fairy tale:

There is no purpose to being the king or queen of this kingdom other than being the ruler rather than being ruled. To have become a king or queen at the conclusion of the story symbolizes a state of true independence in which the hero feels… secure, satisfied and happy…

Bruno Bettleheim ‘Transcending Infancy with the Help of Fantasy in “The Uses of Enchantment”

Pete is given agency from the start – Berg allows him to express his frustration when he is crossed – and in the denouement of his narratives of crisis, and that leads to the stories’ punchline invariably being about that day being “good.”

He has quite a lot of agency. He is out on his trike on his own, going to the shops, watching builders: this neighbourhood is full of interesting things for a small boy to do. He even gets a lift to buy a notepad from a man on whose car he has been writing with a stick, although in the version I have (1971) he asks his mum, who does check and allows him. The stories thus stand as testament to a childhood I think we rarely see in the UK these days – at least, one that is not recorded. This is the same world as the US childhood depicted in The Sign on Rosie’s Door (from 1′ on in this clip, in the 80th birthday tribute to Maurice Sendak), although Sendak’s is much more social. Pete’s world was described maybe ten years before I experienced it, and the world was changing. I felt sad having to explain this to a seven-year-old when I started on sharing these stories, in much the same way as a discussion of lifts from strangers feels like a necessary introduction to The Elephant and the Bad Baby (lots more to say about that story!).

Pete explores with confidence and copes with the events that thwart his plans. He reacts with an unregulated anger or impatience – and in some ways the best thing about this is how the narrator allows this expression of anger. He has the much-pined-for freedom that is deep in the narrative of nostalgia: in some ways his physical and emotional freedom is the epitome of this version of childhood freedom. It is one I recognise from my own childhood: my own tricycle when I was three or four, the casual interactions with people I knew or at least who knew me: Harrogate; Charlton Marshall and Blandford Forum in Dorset, even before the freedoms of bike-friendly Harlow in Essex when I was eight (two-wheeler by now! – I still have the scars)…

So in Leila Berg’s 1950s we have a small person – just beginning to write (and that and the trike suggest he is four, but I’m happy to be corrected) out and about with adults keeping a regulatory eye but not systematically organised on his explorations. Pete is a lone hero with odd cats and dogs and sticks – and of course his shadow – for company. The interactions with adults are gradually – very gradually – teaching Pete about the world around him. For me the most touching is Pete’s interaction with a builder. It starts with Pete being cross about how people build – up, he thinks, with walls, not down into foundations. But the builder gives him some time:

“Well,” said the man, “if you’ll listen very carefully – and quietly – and lave my spade alone – I’ll explain it to you.” And he wiped his hands on his trousers, for there were feeling rather sore and sticky.

And because Pete could see that what the man was going to tell him would be the truth, he stopped being angry and listened.

Pete and the Whistle.

The man was going to tell him the truth. That is one of the most insightful lines in the book: and if we expect the dance of adult and child regulation to be success, it is at the heart of our parenting and pedagogy.

In The Sign on Rosie’s Door the regulation more or less comes from the group of children; the flock keeps the flock safe, although it is interesting that joining a group and leaving it is very casual. There is freedom here too, freedom for slightly older children, freedom of a different order from Little Pete – freedom from the ties of the adult. The entertaining autobiography of David Benjamin has similar insights, reflecting on Wisconsin (of maybe a slightly older child) from a similar period:

Kids are instinctively feral. Unleash them from school and church and home, as every kid was invariably set loose every summer in the Little-League-less Fifties, and kids will hunt down whatever wild game crawls into their territory.

The summer hunt is an ecstasy of freedom. Suddenly, the last days of May, after a useless morning in class, school ends. The doors open and kids stumble, blinking, into the sun. We hear our first robin sing. We see our first forsythia. We breath chalkless, nunless, heathen air. We break into a run…

David Benjamin ‘Koscal’ in “The Life and Times of the Last Kid Picked.”

A Gift to be Simple

I seem to be sharing a lot of poetry at the moment. Thanks to the “Singalong” on BBC Radio 3 Breakfast I have been reintroduced to this Shaker song. The Beeb’s version this morning, sung a capella and without harmony by a Shaker congregation, is a wonder. Here are the words.

Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be
And when we find ourselves in the place just right
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed
To turn, turn will be our delight
‘Til by turning, turning, we come round right.

‘Tis the gift to be gentle, ’tis the gift to be fair,
‘Tis the gift to wake and breathe the morning air;
And ev’ry day to walk in the path we choose,
‘Tis the gift that we pray we may ne’er come to lose.

When true simplicity is gained…

‘Tis the gift to be loving, ’tis the best gift of all,
Like a quiet rain, it blesses where it falls;
And if we have the gift we will truly believe
‘Tis better to give than it is to receive.

When true simplicity is gained…

It occurs in Copeland’s Appalachian Spring, discussed here and played here, but in some ways the simple version is more powerful: the lyrics are a wonder. There are lots of versions even so: Judy Collins; Yo Yo Ma and Alison Krauss, other artists trying their hand at this anthem for simple gifts.

I could say I am back with Strabo watching boys collecting fruit, or with Mary Oliver waking in gratitude, but really I’m back in school assembly, and that raft of all-but-Humanist aspirational songs we used to sing: When a Knight Won His Spurs; Glad that I Live am I (for which I can’t find a version I like). Maybe this one is the best just because of, well, its innate simplicity.

Two final questions

This blog post forms the final part of the dialogue between me and Chris Lovegrove on aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider. I have really enjoyed working with someone of Chris’ studiousness and perspicacity, revisiting a book my children loved, and looking (at least in part) at how Jenny Nimmo’s work has transferred to TV, and where she sits in the circle of British fantasy writers. Here I hope to look at tradition and folklore and at Jenny Nimmo as a re-presenter of Welsh culture – not so much as a summary, more as further lines of enquiry. As before, Chris will be responding to the same questions on his own site, but, beyond shaping the questions and agreeing when we should post, we have not colluded….

So the first question (our third in the series), and posed by Chris is:

3. The backstory and the action in the story’s ‘present’ both point to the Halloween/All Saints period as a moment of transition, Noson Galan Gaeaf leading to Calan Gaeaf, the first day of the Celtic winter. Do you think the setting in the Welsh countryside ensures this threshold moment is more rooted in the past — and perhaps more ‘authentic’ — than a ‘modern’ Halloween tale located in suburbia? 

Hmmmmm. I am not the greatest fan of Hallowe’en in its present format, in part because the patterns of play and trickery have been overlaid by material from US fim and TV and an ensuing rush for tacky costumes and upstaging neighbours: a sort of full-circle, I suppose. I wrote about it here, so I won’t go on moaning, but I will pick up on a fascinating point in Chris’ question: Hallowe’en as a threshold moment.

I’ve written about Hallowe’en as smiling at the shadows – and when I worked in Nursery, this was how we approached it – but in The Snow Spider we encounter a different set of thresholds. Gwyn, coming (at his birthday) to the end of the first part of his childhood, with his models for adulthood skewed, missing, off-script; he stands on the threshold between an older way of life in the Welsh hills and a set of outlooks in a more modern world (with all its faults it is what he is growing into); he stands – as part of this, perhaps – on the threshold between “our” world and another. And here, as the Autumn blasts fold the farms of Pendewi into Winter, we stand with him at Hallowe’en.

Nimmo manages this well. On All Saints’ Night – the “night after Hallowe’en'” as Nimmo tellingly has it – Bethan, doomed big sister to Gwyn, had gone out looking for Gwyn’s ewe. The pumpkin from Hallowe’en stared out at her as she went, “grimacing with its dark gaping mouth and sorrowful eyes.” It is as if the folk-horror is to be underplayed on purpose: just a pumpkin represents the play Hallowe’en, when, the night after, things take a sudden plummet and we are into the main action of the book. Gwyn’s black ewe and Bethan are never seen again. Gwyn’s years as a sunny little boy are at an end. “Shut the door tight, when I am gone,” Bethan says as she leaves, and that is just what the family do. They plunge into a wintry landscape of anger and loss – and confusion, too – the end of which is presaged by the arrival of Eirlys, whose name means snow-drop in Welsh. It is a slow and an emotional version of the melting of the long winter in Narnia.

It is up to Gwyn to challenge his father – and he can, it seems, only do this by finding a link to the mythic past, by the magic gifts from his grandmother, by the help of the mysterious girl from another world: by stepping over the threshold of his father’s expectations. Gwyn leaves the house (like his sister), crosses the threshold to call the names of his ancestors, to meet the dark. This is as about as far from Trick or Treat as we can go in today’s Hallowe’en, where we – or our urban gangs of children, or maybe even before the start of the story Bethan and her little brother – go from house to house, half-joking, half-threatening, jolly tricksters.

A suburban telling would have been different in so many ways: street lamps and the ease of access to transport. Not that it would have been worse – think of the desolation of the children in Garner’s Elidor, all chill wastelands, alienating buses and dark demolition sites – but it would have had a hard time taking a lone boy out to meet something as monstrous as the anger of prince Efnisien. Which brings us (back, maybe?) to the question of Nimmo and Welsh myth – and other fantasy writers who have crossed a border into Wales.

4. (The final question: mine), thinking about Nimmo as writer. Jenny Nimmo and Alan Garner and Susan Cooper have all written with a great deal of thought about the places and myths of Wales. Is there a common theme that makes their approach successful – or are they all still writing as outsiders?

Perhaps I am over-ambitious here. Catherine Butler’s work on Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones and Susan Cooper, after all, takes over seventy pages on Myth and Magic alone. This is, therefore, a quick set of side thoughts.

There is a wonderful and inspirationally broad sweep in Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence in which various combinations of protagonists meet the story of Arthur, the ancient trackways of England, Cornish folklore, and the struggle between good and evil in Gwynedd. Cooper magpies her way through a range of historical traditions to bring us to the conclusion and the departure of the Old Ones, the curtain falling on the transcendental drama of good and evil. I have already mentioned Alan Garner’s Gwyn, another descendant of ancient rivalries and magic, and Garner has immersed himself in the Welsh language, is respectful of its history and legend. In contrast to Nimmo’s Gwyn, whose delve into his past is primarily about self-identity and a distant legend, or Susan Cooper’s children whose task is the Matter of Britain, the Garner version is made up of claustrophobia and recent history as well as repeating magic. Big images, big motifs in all three are brought down to recognisable characters: Will, from the hills above the Thames, a disaffected Gwyn sulking in a valley where he should be Lord, a nine-year-old Gwyn playing with his watch and with tasks to do on the farm. When myth works, it works through concrete images – that is through story, Catherine Butler asserts, and then suggests that story functions like a repeated ritual such as the Mass… as providing access to that event’s reality. In other words, we have the great themes of myth and legend made flesh.

Whose myth, however? Whose legends, whose culture are these authors writing?

In The Snow Spider, The Owl Service and The Grey King all three English authors have come over the border into a world that is not wholly their own. Why have they done this? Without referring to any critical writers or biographers (very possibly there are statements of intent from any of these three: but the texts have to stand on their own, I think) I would want to see the three bodies of writing as needing Welshness to give a freshness and a detail to the mythic landscape. It is as if the Celtic – twilight or no – adds something vital that the English corpus of story cannot. Cooper visits, and finds a theme that excites, engages and carries her sequence further; Garner watches, strikes up relationships, ponders and then produces an anxious and hemmed-in story in which the figures of legend are uncomfortably close; Nimmo lives in Wales, celebrates her family’s roots, asks her protagonist to do magic for us to see. In The Snow Spider, she gets a boy, his friends, his farm, his village to show us the stories that in part define them. The relationship between the three authors and Wales is as different as the authors themselves, and as different as their individual reasons for looking at the myths of legends of the Mabinogion.

And there, for me, is the nub of the reason why a fantasy writer might look to Wales. English magic, English beginning-myths have little in the way of consistent telling of stories – we have Hobberdy Dick and the local goblins, ghosts and fairies. Apart from Arthur (Two points, however: yes, I know “Arthur” and “English” may not sit together too happily, although I am mindful that Henry VII – Henry Tudor, descendant of Owain Tudur – called his eldest son Arthur to try and give us another king with that name; and there are genealogies linking the Royal family back to Woden) we do not really have anything of the power, of the rich seam of story that we get in Wales. English history might be heroic – but it is prosaic, too.

Puck, for example, in Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill, has a hard time bringing English myth to life – in fact Kipling really uses Puck as a doorway into English heritage rather than a discussion point in his own right (there is an exception to this: the shadowy relationship between Old Hobden and his mysterious visitor Tom in Dymchurch Flit). For Kipling there was an inspiration other than his own at work, perhaps (I cite it here): but the genius loci in the brook by Kipling’s house is a sense of Englishness more than a sense of English magic, which is portrayed as passing and fading. He can write with resonance about the magic that has gone – but Puck/Kipling is clear that the glory has departed.

What then attracts, if the English Twilight of the Gods is long past? Again, I have thought before about the persisting fairy tales, and maybe another way of seeing them is that these are the little flowers that grow where a big tree has been cleared: we have local place stories; we have the intense locality of Alan Garner but no grand narrative of what Englishness means. Fantasy writers look for something to inspire, and find it – Nimmo certainly does – in the wildness and energy of the mountains of Gwynedd more than the Sussex Weald or the Woods of Warwickshire.

Confusions

To reflect on the moving Corey’s Rock by Sita Brahmachari and Jane Ray has required a number of shifts in my thinking. I’ve had to screen out some of the praise for the book as well as the discomfort I feel at a personal level for a subject that – in part at least – touches my own life. There are already confusions here, and what I want to do is to return to the questions of ambiguity I’ve looked at before (in fact just over a year ago in my post Understanding).

Corey’s Rock tells an uncomfortable story. Isla, the young first -person narrator, has returned to the island where her mother’s family have roots. In the aftermath of the death of Corey, Isla’s younger brother, the family of four – Mum, Dad, girl and dog – are a family seeking, in Auden’s words, locality and peace. The narrative at its simplest is about the weeks in which Isla begins to settle into her new life while mourning her brother.

But I see that I have already strayed away from the simple into the complex, and in referring to Auden I have returned to my own confusions, and a post in which I look at the

the cramped frustration of attempting

the jigsaw with pieces missing

And if the posts from that time are about a lost me, this book is a story of a lost family.

So I think there are three sets of confusions to be addressed here: the ambiguities of the text and illustrations; the complexity and detail of narrative and art work; the twinges and uncertainties of the reader.

They are not all things we should fight shy of: life is confused; endings are uncertain. If the current crises in health, society and the economy (insofar as they can be disentangled) can teach us, we are an uncertain bunch: too reflective to suffer dumbly, but unable to make much sense of sudden changes, sudden downturns in our fortune. This is not always to the advantage of the writer, who has to contend with issues of clarity. Jenny Nimmo writes a piecemeal and sometimes unclear narrative when she looks to set out the relationship between the magic world and our world in The Snow Spider; Sita Brahmachari does the same with a similar brief: how to look at a child’s grief through myth and landscape. The issue, it seems to me, is connected with the genuine confusions in the minds of Isla and Gwyn – and the pain of their adults. Ivor, Gwyn’s father, is the more confused of the two dads, lost in his anger as much as Bethan was lost on the mountain; Isla’s father (and some cost to himself, I think), sighs as he tells his daughter “You know Corey can’t come back, don’t you?”

The truth does not make him any less beautiful or eloquent: Jane Ray’s luminous artwork gives him soulful eyes and a deep connection to his children and Sita Brahmachari gives him the best lines:

“How deep does the colour go?” I ask Dad.

How deep is the sea,” he answers.

He is an archaeologist with the soul of a poet. Kathleen Jamie, meeting him on a beach in the bleak north of Scotland, would have found a friend.

Back to my three confusions: I suppose I am trying to distinguish in my own mind between what seems the author’s deliberate blurring of edges (which is as much at the heart of this as it is David Thomson’s classic People of the Sea and the film Song of the Sea) and the fact that I am not (or not yet) at ease with the rich complexity of the story Brahmachari is telling. Shapes shift, roles move, tragedy and freedom walk hand in hand, and in this story we trace other themes, too, besides myth and landscape: race, disability, belonging, refugee children washed up on the shores of Europe; the roles of incomers in an island community; a mother coping with grief and a father’s efforts to keep his family whole; and the big question of little Isla:

Do you think this island will make us happy again?

Have the author and artist been over ambitious, or is it, perhaps, that I don’t feel able to embrace this complexity? I struggled with this on my first two readings, but then was struck by the Celtic knotwork on one of the double-page spreads, and thought of those complex interweavings that are part of so many pre-conquest crosses, ornaments (like this from a Viking grave in Orkney) and tombs and manuscripts – and I honestly think this was my misreading. This is an ambitious book, but look at Sendak (link here to the haunting and complex My Brother’s Book, again a richly illustrated and complex text about death); Foreman; look, even at the stories of Katie Morag and her own island life. I know picture books and richly illustrated texts aren’t always easy. Of course I know that.

So what was my problem here? My third confusion. It is possible for a story to be poorly written, badly drawn: in my teaching on a module called Becoming a Reader we would look at texts with ideologies long dead, books with clumsy pictures or inconsequential, often derivative stories. Corey’s Rock is not one of those, although the threads of detail take some following. The third confusion is where the reader looks but does not see how those threads might go.

Because in the end there are more and more threads to follow: where author and artist brings their research, their pasts (including their past work: the dad in Corey’s Island recalls – although not exactly – the beautiful, caring father in A Balloon for Grandad)… or where a reader’s own reading past or visits to a place or similar sadnesses lead off in the wrong direction.

So to end, not in any way to try and trump the painful story at the heart of Corey’s Rock, but maybe to explain part of my confusion as I read and re-read it, joining in the sea song of all those times Isla’s family walk along the beach or look out for the bobbing head of a seal, is one of my twenty-year old poems for our son Theo.

Recalling you is a daily conjuration.  In solitude

I know my sadness, know your face, but you appear

where least expected: at the corners of sleep;

at the bruise of unkindness; in a flower

unlooked-for, by a cliff’s edge.

Today I called you,

throwing a stone

into the receding tide,

trying to write your name in the wet sand;

but as I made the first stroke, crossbar of your T,

the wave returned,

unbidden, sudden –

And the mark my writing didn’t leave was you.

Landscape and Community

Chris Lovegrove and I have been trying to explore aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider together: this blog post forms part of the concluding dialogue between me and Chris. In this week’s blogs we are answering the same questions, but doing so, to some extnent “blind:’ we have agreed our two questions and then we are posting our blogs on the same day.

Here’s the first, posed by Chris:

1. The Snow Spider is very much set in the Welsh landscape, not just by the language and the myths but also by the descriptions — the hills and the sheep farming, for example, and the apparent proximity of the sea (which Gwyn is able to smell after a short tramp through over the hills). Does it matter for our engagement with the story that it’s bedded in a realistic setting or does it work equally well in a mythic setting (as it has to for those unfamiliar with The Snow Spider’s cultural matrix)? 

My response: I’ve been to Wales four times: once to Conwy and Betws-y-Coed on a coach trip with a pile of nuns when I was nineteen;  once, in 2000, to the Brecon Beacons to get soaking wet while training as a Forest School Leader in the pouring rain; once to stay in a cottage at the foot of the Sugar Loaf near Abergavenny. My  last visit, rather later in my life, was to help at a Quality Assurance event in Carmarthen. My understanding of Wales is therefore built on brief and specific visits – and at no time have a stayed in a claustrophobic valley like in The Owl Service, nor really had any dealings with Welsh hill farmers beyond being told a footpath was no longer in use. So what, therefore, is my response to the landscape in The Snow Spider? How realistic do I need it to be?

It was not a high mountain, nor a dangerous one. Some might even call it a hill. It was wide and grassy, a series of gentle slops that rose, one after another, patterned with drystone walls and windblown bushes. The plateau at the top was a lonely place, however. From here only the empty fields and surrounding mountains could be seen and, far out to the west, the distant grey line of the sea.

This is Nimmo’s early setting the scene. Gwyn ascends the mountain to practise his powers, but here we are being told simply what the upland looks like. There is a lot, of course, that a reader (particularly, perhaps a reader of Gwyn’s age) might want to disentangle in the language and topology: How can a hill be a mountain? What’s a plateau? As we sort out the vocabulary of place in a possibly unfamiliar place at the start of the narrative, we are on the cusp of a deeper understanding, almost a curtain-raiser for the mythic and developmental battles young Gwyn is beginning to engage in.

But in order to come close to Chris’ enquiry I feel I need to distinguish between the everyday depiction and the descriptions that that move the story along. Michael Bonnett and certainly Michael Farrelly seem to suggest that “human-environmental interrelationships” are aided by powerful storytelling. We have that here, in Jenny Nimmo’s three Magician Trilogy novels. In the Snow Spider it seems to me that the author chooses weather as a way of inviting her readers into the hill farms, rather than more explicit topography. Here, for example, in Chapter Eight the young magician is poised to fight in the face of a snowstorm:

There was a sudden stillness and the mountain held its breath. Clouds of snow began to gather on the summit; they intensified and rolled downwards in a vast, ever-thickening ice-cold wave.

It is atmospheric writing of a high order. Nimmo has brought us to this point by vivid and intensifying descriptions of weather in a hill country. From much earlier in the story, this is the arrival of a November gale, the first major encounter with wind as an elemental, magical force:

Then, one Sunday, the wind came; so quietly at first that you hardly noticed it. By the time the midday roast had been consumed, however, twigs were flying, the barn door banging, and the howling in the chimney loud enough to drive the dog away from the stove.

The storm, a dominant motif – and an important factor when anyone is up in a mountainous region – will come to provide the wintry arena for a final conflict . Even Gwyn’s prosaic father Ivor has to admit it is “a damn peculiar kind of wind” ; by doing so we come to understand that this is a hard life, and see quite how the tragedy of Gwyn’s older sister being lost on the mountain might have occurred. In these earlier sections, however, Nimmo is also careful to give us little domestic details: the barn door, the dog, the stove… So I come (finally) to Chris’ question: Does it matter for our engagement with the story that it’s bedded in a realistic setting?

I think it does. Part of the power of the depiction of Gwyn’s father (see below) is that he is ordinary; the ambiguities of learning to be a wizard are all the more painful for Gwyn than the flamoyant Owls from Hogwarts and cartoon familial abuse are for Harry Potter because in Gwyn’s story they are depicted as taking places in a believable world. Nimmo leads her readers through the fields with open gates, cows that need milking, the circle of trees where the septic tank lies… and into a world of magic spiders and a past full of ancient tales. It’s a clever way of convincing the reader of the reality of the Gwyn’s challenge as he grows – but for a little more of this, see below.

The second is posed by me:

2: The tight-knit community of The Snow Spider allows for powerful reactions between a limited range of characters: Gwyn’s family, his friends, the neighbours. In a more widely connected world – mobile ‘phones, internet & c (shown in the new TV version) the world is a wider place. Does this date the plot unduly? And if not, why not?

I started by wanting to consider the Hui Clos of Pendewi, the village in the Snow Spider, but of course the most famous line from Sartre’s play is L’enfer c’est les autres, and the more I ponder the community the less sure I am of this. There are family tensions here, and the neighbourly relationships of a small village, but these are not people trapped in Hell together, but a Pobol y Cwm, a people of the valley. When Alun, Gwyn’s friend, is lost in the storm, the ‘grapevine” works fast to rustle up a search party. When Bryn and Gladys Davis confront Gwyn’s family about Gwyn injuring their son Dewi it is uncomfortable – but not on an epic scale. Gwyn is like many a child who needs to make sense of his family as he grows: what does his family history tie him to? Does he like being with them? As with landscape (above), it is the ordinariness that provides the power to the scene and to the magic that interrupts it.

The new TV version gives some nod to the passing of time since the original publication of the Nimmo books, starting in 1986, in that there is some mention of the internet, and the watch Gwyn gets as a birthday present in the book has become a tablet (with remarkably good connection). This in turn allows some further plot exposition, some idea of the past which Gwyn is inheriting. It also serves to underline that very odd nature of the old Welsh manuscript the young magician reads. As a reflection on the updates in the series it works well.

Does this make the actual text creak at all in retrospect? I didn’t think so. The IPad/tablet would have been no further use in the story than the rewrite has allowed it. (In pondering updates I did think of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet where for the tragic failures of communication to take their toll, the modern audience needs not to think how simple a quick couple of texts or emails could have sorted everything). Gwyn’s father’s quad bike was a nice touch, too: this was a family more like Emmerdale (or God’s Own Country) than Cold Comfort.

But what of magic in the modern world? Where might the Tylwyth Teg live now? For Alice Thomas Ellis the uncomfortable magic of the Welsh tradition in Fairy Tale suggests they live where they have always lived: in edgelands, woods, odd meadows and lanes with a strange feel to them, very much alive in the affairs of humans. In Pendewi, the stories live on by being reenacted (more explicitly in the later books in the trilogy), and the parallels with Garner’s The Owl Service are many, from common roots in the Mabinogi to the recurrence of tensions dating back into myth and legend. Where is the magic? In both books (“all the books,” if we count the Ellis, the Garner, all three by Nimmo and Susan Cooper [who will come into my next post]) it is frighteningly close: it exhibits in the fallible humans who cross its path. (Just as it would be amusing to think up how M R James’ stories could be updated effectively, it would also be a challenge to think quite where his ghosts might reside now: in mobile numbers that link to conspiracy theories long dead, catalogues whose URL summon destruction, internet stalkers whose only real presence is to hunt the curious through the pdfs of manuscripts…) But Nimmo’s Gwyn, it seems to me does not needs this. It is his ordinariness that saves him. Tensions between generations, Ivor Griffiths’ incoherent anger at his family’s loss, the petty rivalries of the playground: these are universal enough to contain the introduction of the internet, while a small village up in the hills (Chris may take a different view) may not be able to rely on mobile signal quite as much as I do for sustaining its relationships.

Chris and I are planning to post our blogs on 4th May, having not seen one another’s responses. Do please visit https://calmgrove.wordpress.com to see what Chris has made of these two questions.

Need Called Knowledge Out

This blog post forms part of the dialogue between me and Chris Lovegrove on aspects of Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider. This was my post on anger; this was his exploring the Myths and the Gifts that Gwyn receives, and this is Chris on Loss, which I will cite below.

Many stories take off at the point where a protagonist realises something about their place in the narrative. The variations are worth a quick look. The title of this post comes from the complex beginnings of A Wizard of Earthsea, where Ged discovers, little by little, the power of magic, and it is this particular sequence from LeGuin that for me embodies the best of these understandings of who these young heroes are – or might become. Will Stanton has a more dramatic set of encounters in the Dark is Rising; the growing menace that threatens Martha and the other children of a quiet Oxfordshire village in The Whispering Knights shows another way of introducing the dilemma at the heart of fantasy. Caspian, Eustace and Polly in various of the Narnia stories have similar vocational events; the children in Elidor fall into their task by accident and are all, in various ways, unwilling heroes. The two most famous (at the moment) are where Harry Potter is told that he’s a wizard and where Frodo takes up the task of destroying the Ring. Here, as a shortcut, is the film version of the Harry Potter interchange; likewise here is Frodo at the Council of Elrond. It is debatable whether this is the moment at which Frodo decides, of course, and there could be various readings of this. It would make an interesting task to take these narratives of self-realisation and tabulate them: gender (What happens when Lyra is given the alethiometer? Is this her “vocational event”? Is Lucy in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe the same in terms of “vocation” and belief [a theme repeated in Prince Caspian] as her brothers here? What about Susan?); does it come about by self-discovery or an external message; how does use of past histories explain the state the hero is entering (what does Miss Hepplewhite’s back story do to help the children along?); age of the young hero (nine? ten? thirteen?); pace of discovery, point of self-realisation…

Ah yes: the point at which the hero accepts the quest makes for an interesting point*. In Harry Potter, this is a surprise, almost comic, as the boy discovers (by being told) something about who he “really is” in the teeth of opposition from his oppressive family; in Lord of the Rings this is an unwelcome realisation on the part of Frodo Baggins – that his part in the story is not over, a culmination of a whole load of plot development, near-death adventure and background in-fill: while Harry is described as unhappy, abused and lost, with his inchoate powers hinting at him that there is more to come, Frodo (not a magician any more than his Sam) has learned of the peril of the Ring, the need to get it secretly away from the terrors that are seeking it, and has experienced its addictive and destructive power. Such is the pace of Rowling and Tolkien in a nutshell: Tolkien is creating his world, while Rowling throws us in medias res. In a story written with children in mind the choice for a sudden exposition is also connected to a desire to get on with the plot – so that when Gwyn is given the news he is (or may be) a magician in The Snow Spider it is abrupt like the news Hagrid gives Harry:

“‘Time to find out if you are a magician, Gwydion Gwyn!’ said Nain.

‘A magician?’ Gwyn inquired.

‘Time to remember your ancestors: Math, Lord of Gwynedd, Gwydion and Gilfaethwy!’

‘Who?’ ‘

The magicians, boy!”

and just in the same way as Harry Potter and Ged will take time to find their place in the world they are entering – one might argue that Ged struggles all his life, after his early (literally schoolboy) errors – Gwyn takes all three books of The Snow Spider to realise his power, his place in Nimmo’s grand continuum of myth and location.

Vocational Event: self-realisation. When a story takes off like this, somewhere along the line there is a task to take up, a burden to shoulder.

Frodo becomes the hero (and maybe even more so, Sam) by his involvement in the story, whereas Harry’s status goes before him. Gwyn, Ged and Will are an uncomfortable mixture of the two, which makes these stories have an undertow of Bildungsroman to them: their growth into their magic is what makes them interesting protagonists. While Will is looking for his place among the Old Ones as their mission reaches its conclusion, Ged is literally (and figuratively) at sea, looking, as the books progress, at the encircling gloom he has, in part, released. Gwyn, however, is a new creation of the mythic past – less an inheritor than (as I said before) “growing into an adult sensitivity, into understanding his family, into his power as a magician.” The demons he encounters are therefore not just the spirit of Efnisien but what Chris Lovegrove calls “the multiple human tragedies that always happen, now as ever -” the thousand natural shocks.

The need that calls out his knowledge is not just the immediate – to find Bethan his lost sister – but to stand in the breach of his family’s pain. As Chris explains it “Gwyn has to learn how to control his innate gifts as a magician in order to make good as many of the losses as he can.” He needs to contain, to hold, to heal. The symbolism of the gate not shut is subtle – but insistent throughout the first book of the trilogy, and the clumsiness of Gwyn’s attempts at healing recurs in the third.

Gwyn (or young reader of The Snow Spider), please note: no-one – apart, perhaps, from your imperfect parents – expects you to be perfect, and if Nain looks like she wants to rest the whole weight of the history of early medieval Wales on your shoulder, she, too, is over ambitious.

This is where the reader’s identification with a questing protagonist is key. We ride alongside Gringolet to earn, with Gawain, the true value of knighthood; we learn to deal with adults with Harry Potter, with belief and faith in Narnia: we negotiate family dynamics in a time of transitions with Roland in Elidor and in a time of pain and loss with Gwyn in The Snow Spider… Growing up in not without pain, struggle –

And as Will concludes in the final words of the Dark is Rising books “I think it’s time we were starting out…We’ve got a long way to go.”

*There are parallels here with many Biblical (and non-Biblical) narratives: the call of Abram/Abraham; the vocational encounter of Moses; the desert experience and Baptism of Jesus – the questioning about suffering of Siddhārtha Gautama, the call of St Francis, the Sword in the Stone… I might then want to explore the lines between the sacrificial journey of Abraham and Isaac, the journey to Calvary, and the sacrifice of Lubrin Dhu in Sun Horse Moon Horse… There isn’t really space in this post to do any exploration of these justice. But at least that thought gives me an excuse to finish with the view from Uffington.

Which Moomin Character?

A lot can be said – and has been said – about Tove Jansson’s relationships within the books and cartoon strips, and she does indeed present a child’s Hogarth of a world, where foibles and strengths are all on show, from Sniff’s immaturity to a similar self-centredness in the Muskrat, hiding in his mauvaise foi in a dismissive attitude. And all this in a landscape that (for me when I first read the books in Harlow [as it then was] “New Town”) enticing and alien: mountain streams with crocodiles, and observatories and impromptu woodland dances…  Part of me wondered if this was how Scandinavia really was, and maybe it took reading the Summer Book at Brookes for me to see how clever Jansson was about these ways marrying of reality and fantasy. Part of me wondered if those weird and engaging people were real too, whether I had some part of me in those stories.

Turn but a tweet and start a blog, to paraphrase Francis Thompson.  A discussion today on Twitter prompted me to offer reading about the Fillyjonk as an example of the joy of private, quiet reading.  Why, when discussing reading, did I suggest a Fillyjonk as the person I want to meet in my private reading? I was thinking of Tales from Moominvalley, I suppose, and she was the first person I could think of, a minor character rather than Moomin (see below) or from his immediate friends or family.  Showing off, I suppose, like Sniff…   A Fillyjonk is essentially an anxious person “dutiful to the point of tedium – not a character I immediately  identify with, although I can see what I was getting at, I suppose: a catastophizer who meets with a real disaster.   So who would I like to be?

  • I am too much of a home body to join the Hattifateners – whom I loved because I could draw them.
  • Bingummy and Thob taught me so much about language play – but I was an only child, in effect: that wasn’t the bizarre little twins.
  • The ghost in the Exploits, with a gentle side and a macabre turn of phrase?
  • The Hemulen Aunt? There have been times when, as an Early Years teacher, I have heard her voice come out from my mouth. And Edward the Booble’s grumpy tones. 
  • The Groke? Well, she was my avatar for our Virtual Learning Environment for quite some time. I wonder whether she sloped off when I changed it, leaving a trail of frost across the internet.

This isn’t the quiz that you can do.  I haven’t done it. Really, even when I first read Finn Family Moomintroll (and heard it on Jackanory in the mid-60s), I think I had it worked out, albeit dimly: Moomintroll pining after Snufkin. And so often I could characterise my relationships – certainly the ones that had me roaming morosely around as an undergraduate – as ones in which my inner Moomin longed and longed to be the adventurous and carefree Bohemian. Jansson may not be Maimonides, but the Moomins were a family when I was so perplexed I felt I had none, and “which Moomin character are you?” would have had only one answer.  And there were quite a lot of candidates for Snufkin…

But of course the joy and the cleverness of Jansson’s characters is that you can be more than one. Dutiful to the point of tedium like Mrs Fillyjonk; self-centred Sniff; fussy and obsessive like a Hemulen, full of unrealistic hopes like the little dog who wished he was a wolf  – and now? Well, Maggie is making cakes in the kitchen, and I am in my study pondering my youth.