A Christmas Star?

In a monumental stumble – or set of stumbles – the current government have altered the COVID-19 restrictions from those they imposed so recently – and with such derision of others. They have proved themselves unequal to the pressures they face within and without. Today’s U-turn is one no amount of privileged bluster and Oxford Union rhetoric should be able to cover. This is not Isaiah’s or Vergil’s messianic comfort; this isn’t even a dull year of personal and societal trudge – so what is it?

It is not just the “cancelling of Christmas” that makes me think of Narnia and its blighted time of always winter and never Christmas (a thoughtful little post here), but as people look for the gathering conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn I look for the first turnings to justice and restoration that are the pivot in the first chapters in the story of the young prince Caspian. Here the prince is with his tutor Doctor Cornelius:

https://images.app.goo.gl/tNNLJDpvLm6QAtJa6

There was no difficulty in picking out the two stars they had come to see. They hung rather low in the southern sky, almost as bright as two little moons and very close together.
“Are they going to have a collision?” he asked in an awestruck voice.
“Nay, dear Prince,” said the Doctor (and he too spoke in a whisper). “The great lords of the upper sky know the steps of their dance too well for that. Look well upon them. Their meeting is fortunate and means some great good for the sad realm of Narnia. Tarva, the Lord of Victory, salutes Alambil, the Lady of Peace. They are just coming to their nearest.’

C S Lewis: Prince Caspian Ch 4

All of a sudden the half-glimmers of hope of Caspian’s story begin to come true, and the Kings and Queens of old come back, and Narnia is restored. There is, in Caspian’s terror and joy, something of Betjeman’s repeated question And is it true? And is it true…?

And tonight it feels very far from the cosy querulousness of Betjeman – but while I am thinking of Lewis and Betjeman, I can skip forward to more earthy and grounded words of comfort from perhaps the greatest character in Lewis’ Narnia, Puddleglum:

Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that’s a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We’re just babies making up a game, if you’re right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That’s why I’m going to stand by the play-world. I’m on Aslan’s side even if there isn’t any Aslan to lead it.

C S Lewis The Silver Chair, ch 12

So I may not see a Christmas conjunction, when we see with Vergil redeunt Saturnia regna, the kingdom of Saturn returns, and next year I may see, along with the rest of Britain, a poor excuse for a country run by self-servers pandering to xenophobes. But I may hope for more – as Betjeman looks beyond The sweet and silly Christmas things I have to look at more than the ways deep and the weather sharp,/The very dead of winter (more on this poem another time, but the conjunction and the Magi couldn’t be passed over).

And my response (to return to gloomy Pugddleglum) will have to be to stamp on the fires of deceit and hopelessness – including my own self-deceit and self-pity.

The Fear that walked the forest

Very much as a continuation of the post from the start of December, I wanted to look at woodlands that are not contemplative spaces but may also be places of danger and menace. There is a bear in Brendon Chase, a giant – and weasels, and so on – in the Little Grey Men, but I will leave B.B. for now and look first at perhaps the most famous of menacing woods, Mole’s entry to the Wild Wood:

There was nothing to alarm him at first entry. Twigs crackled under his feet, logs tripped him, funguses on stumps resembled caricatures, and startled him for the moment by their likeness to something familiar and far away; but that was all fun, and exciting. It led him on, and he penetrated to where the light was less, and trees crouched nearer and nearer, and holes made ugly mouths at him on either side.

Everything was very still now. The dusk advanced on him steadily, rapidly, gathering in behind and before; and the light seemed to be draining away like flood-water.

Then the faces began.

It was over his shoulder, and indistinctly, that he first thought he saw a face, a little, evil, wedge-shaped face, looking out at him from a hole. When he turned and confronted it, the thing had vanished.

He quickened his pace, telling himself cheerfully not to begin imagining things or there would be simply no end to it. He passed another hole, and another, and another; and then—yes!—no!—yes! certainly a little, narrow face, with hard eyes, had flashed up for an instant from a hole, and was gone. He hesitated—braced himself up for an effort and strode on. Then suddenly, and as if it had been so all the time, every hole, far and near, and there were hundreds of them, seemed to possess its face, coming and going rapidly, all fixing on him glances of malice and hatred: all hard-eyed and evil and sharp.

If he could only get away from the holes in the banks, he thought, there would be no more faces. He swung off the path and plunged into the untrodden places of the wood.

Then the whistling began.

Very faint and shrill it was, and far behind him, when first he heard it; but somehow it made him hurry forward. Then, still very faint and shrill, it sounded far ahead of him, and made him hesitate and want to go back. As he halted in indecision it broke out on either side, and seemed to be caught up and passed on throughout the whole length of the wood to its farthest limit. They were up and alert and ready, evidently, whoever they were! And he—he was alone, and unarmed, and far from any help; and the night was closing in.

Then the pattering began.

He thought it was only falling leaves at first, so slight and delicate was the sound of it. Then as it grew it took a regular rhythm, and he knew it for nothing else but the pat-pat-pat of little feet still a very long way off. Was it in front or behind? It seemed to be first one, and then the other, then both. It grew and it multiplied, till from every quarter as he listened anxiously, leaning this way and that, it seemed to be closing in on him. As he stood still to hearken, a rabbit came running hard towards him through the trees. He waited, expecting it to slacken pace or to swerve from him into a different course. Instead, the animal almost brushed him as it dashed past, his face set and hard, his eyes staring. “Get out of this, you fool, get out!” the Mole heard him mutter as he swung round a stump and disappeared down a friendly burrow.

The pattering increased till it sounded like sudden hail on the dry leaf-carpet spread around him. The whole wood seemed running now, running hard, hunting, chasing, closing in round something or—somebody? In panic, he began to run too, aimlessly, he knew not whither. He ran up against things, he fell over things and into things, he darted under things and dodged round things. At last he took refuge in the deep, dark hollow of an old beech tree, which offered shelter, concealment—perhaps even safety, but who could tell? Anyhow, he was too tired to run any further, and could only snuggle down into the dry leaves which had drifted into the hollow and hope he was safe for a time. And as he lay there panting and trembling, and listened to the whistlings and the patterings outside, he knew it at last, in all its fulness, that dread thing which other little dwellers in field and hedgerow had encountered here, and known as their darkest moment—that thing which the Rat had vainly tried to shield him from—the Terror of the Wild Wood!

Kenneth Grahame, The Wind in the Willows, ch 3, The Wild Wood

The inexperienced, the unwary learn a lesson here – so much of Wind in the Willows is about self-discovery – and a parallel section – again, early on its story, and with a rescue at the end – occurs in Rosemary Sutcliff’s Warrior Scarlet, where the boy Drem has run away from home, has turned to the wilderness in an attempt to avoid a looming and unpleasant truth:

Only – only it seemed change was coming over the forest.

Or maybe it was that he was awake and aware of the forest now as he had not been before; awake to the darkness and the crowding trees that were suddenly – not quite what trees should be, not quite what they were in the day-time; to the furry that was full of voices,  the whispering, rustling, stealthy voices of the forest, that were not the voices of the daytime either.  There were little nameless rustlings through the undergrowth, the soft swish of  wings through the branches overhead; in the distance a small animal screamed and Drem knew that somewhere a fox had made its kill. Surely the whole forest was disturbed tonight. But those were not the sounds that are raised the hair on the back of his neck. Once he thought he heard the breathing of a big animal close at hand, and as he checked, his own breath caught in his throat; something brushed through the undergrowth towards him, and there was a sudden silver pattering like rain among the leaves – but it was not raining.  He pushed on again, more quickly now, carelessly, stumbling often among the underbrush; and when he stopped once more, to listen and make sure of his direction, suddenly the breathing was there again; a faint slow panting, just behind him. He whirled about, his hand on the knife in his belt, but there was nothing there.  Nothing but the furry darkness.  And far off through the trees, he thought that something laughed. His heart was racing now, sickeningly, right up in his throat; he struggled on again, blindly. Mustn’t stop any more; it was when you stopped that you heard things. But even as he blundered on, above the brushing and crackling that he made, above the drubbing of his heart, he heard a soft, stealthy panting as though the Thing prowled at his heels. But it was not only at his heels now, it was all around him, in front as well as behind, and the forest itself, the whole forest was like some great hunting cat crouched to spring. ‘Don’t run!’ said the hunter that was born and bred in him that knew the ways of the wild through hundreds of generations.  ‘Don’t run!’ But terror had him in its power, and he was running, with no more sense of direction than a mouse with a stoat behind it.

Brambles tore his skin, fallen branches tripped him, low-hanging boughs slashed across his face as he crashed from the undergrowth that seemed to lay hold of him with wicked, clawing hands. This was the Fear that walked the forest, the Terror of the Soul.  He had never felt it before, but the hunter within him knew it; the Fear that prowled soft footed beyond the cave mouth and the firelight.

Rosemary Sutcliff, Warrior Scarlet. 2: Talore the Hunter

It is much less consciously poetic than Grahame’s Wild Wood, but picks up the same theme: the crisis of the small creature in a world that is unsafe. For Graham the menace grows in those single and then the …began lines. Each one of them heralds a growing feeling of discomfort, all indistinct to start with. The growing menace is all the more chilling for its being all but intangible.

Rosemary Sutcliff also pulls out all the stops. The second only marks the change, reflected in the ways her writing suggests that all those semi-colons and oddly placed commas are stage directions for reading aloud. Consider, for example the ways they she gives the reader to “perform” this example:

He pushed on again, more quickly now, carelessly, stumbling often among the underbrush; and when he stopped once more, to listen and make sure of his direction, suddenly the breathing was there again; a faint slow panting, just behind him.

Her text is broken up, so that it reads like fragments: He pushed on again – more quickly now – carelessly – stumbling suggesting the boy’s intention scattering as the fear – sorry the Fear – takes hold. Mustn’t stop any more; it was when you stopped that you heard things. We have lost the externality of the narrator and fallen into Drem’s own breathless panic.

I wonder if these two tenser images of the terrifying aspects of the Woods are longer because I revel in them and therefore chose the longer sections or because, as Tolkien famously says things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a great deal of telling anyway. The negotium perambulans in tenebris – as the English puts it the pestilence that walketh in darkness – the “acrid consciousness of a restrained hostility” as M R James warns the curious – is a fear from before the time of the Psalms.

I mentioned previously the slow burn of violence and sex and mistrust and uncertainty in Holdstock’s Mythago Wood, and won’t labour the point: Mythago is not a landscape written with children in mind anyway. The increase of fear in Moominland Midwinter as the wolves approach the little dog Sorry-oo; in Mirkwood, the dark, spider-infested nightmare in The Hobbit, escape is just into another problem; but in Tolkien’s Old Forest in Lord of the Rings, rescue comes – because the binary of narrative asserts itself here (as in Mole’s Wild Wood and Drem’s wilderness) – in the impossible jollity of Tom Bombadil: but each time the hunted finds refuge. It is the turning point of the journey: as Sara Maitland explains

It is when you are going out into the forest, not when you are trying to return home from it, that you get lost, that the forest is at its densest and most frightening.

Sara Maitland, Gossip from the Forest: Staverton Thicks

Peril and escape, peril and rescue in the Forest – could we call it the Woodcutter Imperative, perhaps? – occur elsewhere, too, of course. We sometimes find a solution in the woods, despite the fear: Drem will, Mole will, Frodo and Bilbo will, although in a switchback of perilous events – and of course Merry and Pippin will too, in the curious encounters with the Ents.

The Wart , the future King Arthur of T H White’s tragedy The Once and Future King, pursues the hawk into the Forest Sauvage, and White draws on the same themes, but at this point is knowingly engaging the reader (‘nowadays”), and by doing so lessens the panic:

Wart would not have been frightened of an English forest nowadays, but the great jungle of Old England was a different matter. It was not only that there were wild boars in it, whose sounders would at this season be furiously rooting about, nor that one of the surviving wolves might be slinking behind any tree, with pale eyes and slavering chops. The mad and wicked animals were not the only inhabitants of the crowded gloom. When men themselves became wicked they took refuge there, outlaws cunning and bloody as the gore-crow, and as persecuted. …

There were magicians in the forest also in those legendary days, as well as strange animals not known to modern works of natural history. There were regular bands of Saxon outlaws…who lived together and wore green and shot with arrows which never missed. There were even a few dragons, though these were small ones, which lived under stones and could hiss like a kettle.

Added to this, there was the fact that it was getting dark. The forest was trackless and nobody in the village knew what was on the other side. The evening hush had fallen, and the high trees stood looking at the Wart without a sound.

T H White, The Once and Future King: The Sword in the Stone Ch II

The woods, therefore, are not always the joyous and therapeutic place we might imagine, but part of the inimical outdoors, a place of magical, dangerous encounter, the space for menace and danger that will resolve itself or become a meeting with someone or something that will rescue or transform the person who has ventured in (Badger for Mole; Talore for Drem; Merlyn for the Wart; Fangorn for Merry and Pippin – and is it too fanciful to suggest Mellors for Lady Chatterley?). Not comfortable places – but places for an important meeting to take place.

Here is an Old Man Willow up the Windrush valley, on a winter afternoon – possibly not really that old, given willows’ life spans – but a bit of pareidolia suggests a face – and I think of the trees of the Old Forest, the Winter King and thus of course to The Green Knight and to the Christmas that is coming.

Which brings me to a tree end with: my admission that the first tree in the greenwood that I found truly terrifying still has the power the raise the hairs on my arms, and is, of course; not Tolkien’s willow, but

a tree where no tree should be – a tree shaped roughly like a stooping man, that waved its long arms before it and clutched at the air with its long fingers.

Family, Friendship and Loss

‘There is no family any longer.’

Except, Tove Jansson will tell us in a roundabout way, there is – but this is not where she starts from. As Jake Hayes’ fantastic exploration of the book will tell us, Moominvalley in November “is a story about unfulfilled desires.’ And what we find is a different kind of family, where familial fit – the way a community wraps its skills and needs around one another – is re-explored, without most of the familiar main characters of the Moomin stories. But Snufkin is here, irresolute and disturbed.

One of the saddest sections in any of Tove Jansson’s Moomin books is where Snufkin, on his way for the autumn, remembers he hasn’t left his usual letter for his friend Moomintroll.

I forgot my goodbye letter, I didn’t have time. But all the letters I write are the same: I’ll be back in April, keep well. I’m going away , but I’ll be back in the spring, look after yourself. He knows anyway.

Tove Jansson: Moominvalley in November: ‘Snufkin.’

He knows anyway: the heart leaps at that comforting assurance, the two friends knowing that the other is secure in their friendship. And then Jansson pulls the rug out from under my feet:

And Snufkin forgot about Moomintroll as easily as that.

Way back, in what to me seems the sunnier autumn of Finn Family Moomintroll (the first of the books I had read), we had already seen Snufkin leaving before the end, to explore

all the strange places [he] longed for and would go to quite alone.

Tove Jansson: Finn Family Moomintroll

And he will enjoy being quite alone. His solitude is part of his complexity, as is his detachment. I live all over the place, Snufkin says when introduces himself in Comet in Moominland; my hands are free, because I don’t have to carry a suitcase. And along with garnets or any other precious things (apart from hat and mouth-organ) he carries little, physically or emotionally. Not for Snufkin any regret, the hopes for kindness at a distance. All Small Beasts Should Have Bows in their Tails playing on his mouth organ, he is off, answering the call he felt in the night of the storm on the Hattifatteners’ Island.

In the relationship between Moomin and his friend Jansson does a spectacular thing: she shows an unequal friendship, a love that Moomintroll feels and cannot really articulate, a friendship Snufkin picks up and puts down easily.

Moomintroll was left alone on the bridge. He watched Snufkin grow smaller and smaller, and at last disappear among the silver poplars and the plum trees. But after a while he heard the mouth organ playing All Small Beasts Should Have Bows in their Tails and then he knew that his friend was happy. He waited while the music grew fainter and fainter, till at last it was quite quiet, and then he trotted back through the dewy garden…

‘Are you crying?’ asked Bob.

‘N-no,’ said Moomintroll, ‘it’s only that Snufkin has gone away.’

Jansson gives us a simple, hesitant denial: it is the pain of absence that shows us the depth of Moomintroll’s feelings. What began in Comet in Moominland with Snufkin jumping up and down [shouting] Fancy that! What fun! Coming all this way to see me! leads to Moomintroll in Finn Family Moomintroll toasting his friend with a wish for a good pitch for his tent and a light heart, but sad for himself, as Moominmamma wisely notices.

But when Snufkin, in the much later Moominvalley in November, ponders his relationship with the family, Jansson gives us further revelations. Snufkin, significantly in search of some creative completion, has returned to the Moomin valley to find assorted hangers-on have come too, looking for hospitality and companionship – locality and peace as Auden puts it – and while he is not pleased, the new arrangement at least gives him pause for thought:

And how different they are from the Moomin family. They were a nuisance too, they wanted to talk. They were all over the place, but with them you could at least be on your own. How did they behave, actually? Snufkin wondered in surprise. How is it possible I could have been with them all those long summers without ever noticing that they let me be alone?

Tove Jansson, Moominvalley in November, ch 11.

Moomintroll has all sorts of people he depends on and who depend on him: the annoying-little-brother-figure of Sniff; the prototype for Miss Piggy in the Snork Maiden; his father (who has taught me so much about being a father that I am sat upstairs in my study writing); the rarely flappable and always wondrous Moominmamma. But only one Snufkin: there is a beautiful, slow-burn depiction of Moomin’s close friendship with the wanderer, that comes to a half-spoken resolution in November.

In some ways, with the Moomin family following the mid-life crisis of Moominpappa, figuratively and literally at sea (my blog post here), Moominvalley in November is another of Jansson’s meditations on family, but this time, it is Snufkin’s turn to learn. He leaves the valley and his friend Moomintroll with hardly a second glance, but finds himself blocked artistically, and makes his way back – only to find that the annoying, noisy, emotionally engaged Moomins have been replaced by a cast of disfunctional who-are-we-and-what-are-we-doing? characters. But they are a rewriting of the Moominhouse community; another sort of family. Just as Moomintroll on the island in Moominpappa At Sea is struggling with the frustration of his growing into adulthood, here Snufkin is wrestling with similar Angst, questioning what family means to him. On this reading (nth of n times) it seems to me that it is the irritation and pain as much as the joy that suffuses all the Moomin books that makes them so real.

It is his interaction towards the end of the book with little-boy-lost Toft* which marks the turning point in Snufkin’s understanding: when Toft, wrapped in his own fears, seeks reassurance, Snufkin has to step up, making (we should note) two cups of tea, two sandwiches:

‘It’s me,’ Toft whispered. He went inside the tent, where he’d never been before. It smelt nice inside-of pipe-tobacco and earth. Beside the sleeping-bag was a candle on a sugar box and the floor was covered with wood shavings.

‘It’s going to be a wooden spoon,’ Snufkin said. ‘Were you frightened by something?’

‘There is no family any longer,’ answered Toft. ‘They’ve deceived me.’

‘I don’t believe that,’ said Snufkin. ‘Perhaps they just want to be in peace for a while.’ He picked up his thermos flask and fill two mugs with tea. ‘There’s the sugar,’ he said. ‘They’re sure to come home some time.’

‘Sometime!’ exclaimed Toft. ‘She must come now, she’s the only one I care about!’

Snufkin shrugged his shoulders. He made two sandwiches and said: ‘I wonder what it is that the Moominmamma cares about…’

It will lead Snufkin to resolve his own creative block and liberate the anxious Fillyjonk, and by experiencing a different mode of community, Snufkin comes to realise, uncomfortably, what it is he appreciates about the Moomins. However he will not be there to greet them when they return: he has his music and has learned his lesson, but does not cease from being a snufkin. Transformation is not a magic reinvention, but a genuine change: not a Hobgoblin’s Hat change – the kind I was always hoping for for me – but something deeper that allows Snufkin to stay true to himself. At least this time, less careless with his friendship, he remembers to write to Moomintroll.

*

Real is an odd term. This is a world created by an author whose artistic talent is way beyond me, whose life in boats, on islands, in Scandinavian high culture is just as strange – but it is a world that becomes alive because we are invited (gently, subtly) into an emotional world we can understand. The little dog who longs to run with the wolves – until his wish starts to become true; the array of confusions we encounter in ourselves and others; peculiar friends and relations and their foibles and stamp collections; wrong decisions and adventures we hardly chose; how I met your mother; memories, regrets, death and rebirth… Huggably tubby trolls (and irritatingly fussy Fillyjonks, amenable ghosts, and Hattifatteners and the rest) standing for an array of characters we recognise and can see ourselves in.

*Jake connects this insightfully with Tove Jansson’s own loss of her mother. This adds powerfully, for me, to Toft’s break in understanding: Snufkin says “They’re sure to come home,” and Toft responds, “She must come now, she’s the only one I care about!

Becoming a Tree

Cold-call my guilt

Quotation after quotation after quotation is required, punctuated by image after image. Reading The Girl Who Became a Tree (Joseph Coelho and Kate Milner: Otter Barry Books) requires some response but beyond reproduction of the book, what can sufficiently portray its complex creativeness? Part A Monster Calls, part Mythago Wood, riffing Caliban and over and over the praise of reading, of libraries… I am full of praise for the inventive, tricksy, frightening and (sometimes) comforting aspects of this rich text. There are, of course, other beauties around, and if I explore and praise this book in the way I have some of last year’s writing for adults or the marvellous debut of Dara McAnulty, that’s not to say that this is a text that shines alone: we are at a rich time in the creation of high quality children’s literature, as Mat Tobin’s blog attests (check it out, and look at his interview with Seaerra Miller and his review of her Mason Mooney, or his exploration of the Wanderer– recent posts, before we even look at Sydney Smith). But this is different.

The Girl Who Became a Tree is a story told in poems, disjointed and broken, like a jumble of faces and patterns in a stained-glass window or maybe more aptly a woodland left to its own devices – I’ll come back to this. But the woodland is a jumble, even a threatening one sometimes, just like nature itself is, just like the mess Daphne the protagonist has to find her way out of, lost after her own loss, using a language (A picture in my head I could not draw, A language learnt but nothing understood as Fuller has his Caliban say) of love, of attachment and of loss that she has to relearn.

Images and turns of phrase from Daphne’s flight and way back stay with me. I have to praise the joining of inimical nature and failing manufacture in

…crows and ravens

with ‘out of battery’ eyes…

or the menace of simple lines

Amongst the dead branches

sat a throne

and this interweaving of kenning and metaphor is a magnificent section:

I am rage,

stone-cracker,

soil-despoiler,

copse-corpse maker.

So why is my stomach

frozen leaf mulch?

I am frenzy,

field-bomber,

hill-raker,

mountain-puncher.

So why are my eyes

winter mist?

The situation – of tragic loss, of the misapprehension of technology as cure when it merely dulls, of the power of reading – speaks clearly of Phillip Pullman’s assertion (which I cited here) that stories teach in many ways. Woodland is made to speak: the dulling, menacing presence of Tolkien’s Old Man Willow or of the enclosing pine tree that trapped Shakespeare’s Ariel is powerfully at work here, and the poem that first presents its genius loci is direct and plain:

Tree monster big

with its tree monster claws

tree monster mumbles

tree monster roars.

and the terror with which Daphne reacts is likewise vivid:

The way your stomach

lurches to sickness.

The way your heart

stalks every beat.

This is not a monster to be trifled with. This blog has as its headquote a line from Gawain: Very wild through the wood is the way they must take. The tree-woodwose-monster Hoc is of the same shape-shifting as the Green Knight or the wood itself in Mythago Wood. Daphne is, Gawain-like, all but seduced into comfortable half-truth; almost her desire/to hold tight the past traps her. the temptation is not unlike Diggory’s in Lewis’ The Magician’s Nephew – he is offered Mother well again; she is offered memory so vivid it will bring her father back.

The voice of birthday surprise

When the monstrous Hoc, the devouring spirit from tombs of trees… crumbled towers/for fungi to rent offers Daphne the unthinkable, this is a struggle at the hardest of levels; I felt on first reading that she could so nearly have not made it through. As I have said before – in the context of A Monster Calls – misappropriated, mishandled, a spiritual experience might well be damaging. If she hadn’t made it, she – and we – would be lulled, trapped, tapping endlessly on our ‘phones in search of comfort and connection.

As Daphne confronts her loss, her being crushed by the false promises of technological ensnarements which give an impression of connection, she begins to see a way out, a real, emotional rescue/resolution I won’t share here, as a new springtime comes for her. Without breaking the magical realism that is at the heart of this narrative, it is wholly believable: a redemptive friendship, a saved message; a mother’s support…

Illuminated by the artwork Kate Milner offers in the text – meditations on wood, and tree shapes, and the detritus of technology – this is a powerful book, but not an easy read. Pictures need careful examination, and the wordplay and the poetry and storyline likewise need careful following: for me it is not a book to read at a couple of sittings, although I wonder whether more rapid reading would have had a different rhythm and that that in turn would make it more accessible to a younger reader. My issue: not the creators’.

By using myth in a more subtle way than simply updating it, author and illustrator have created a story of confronting death and return from all-consuming grief not unlike Aeneas and Odysseus, but with the modern twist of dealing at once with modern communications and a landscape that is entrapping, dangerous, devouring. There is a tradition of the antiqua silva, the selva oscura here in which it is not a pleasant place, but a place of challenge, where the unwary get into trouble – shades of the woods of Red Riding Hood?

In praise of libraries and librarians (with this author and illustrator how could it not be?), a parable warning against the soft and easy answer, a story of growing up which gives the teenager a place in the adult world, hard-won and precious.

You Can’t Have That Wish, My Little Bear

I would like to write a post in praise of Else Holmelund Minarik‘s Little Bear books with their illustrations by Maurice Sendak – but this is not that post. Indeed, I can’t have that wish at this point. What I want to do is speculate on the enduring power of the words in children’s books, and therefore to start with Little Bear, which provided some phrases that still get an airing at various times in our family.

The title for the blog post gives us the first. When Little Bear can’t sleep, his impossible wishes – actually extreme negotiating positions as he angles for a story – are met with Mother Bear saying You can’t have that wish, my Little Bear. In an earlier story in this little collection, Little Bear sees his lunch set out and says it looks like a good lunch for a little bear. Both of these passed into our family’s phrasebank, and we even now have a big black pot, which means we can ask about dinner by saying Is it in the big black pot? and birthday cakes are sometimes greeted by Birthday Soup is good to eat, but not as good as Birthday Cake. There is a wonderful cadence in all these phrases that means they lend themselves to repetition, and nostalgia for times when we were parents of young children keep them alive, no doubt.

Little Bear now has “his” own YouTube channel, with the animated stories in gentle colours, but it’s that gentle, simple and very open-to-interpretation prose in the books that delighted us. But is it just us? I would love to know if other families found it to have such an impact – and if other books have added to family phrasebanks. Did Snufkin listening to laughter, running feet, and the clanging of great bells far out to sea stick in someone’s vocabulary? Or the Elephant and the Bad Baby‘s rumpeta, rumpeta, rumpeta all down the road accompany many shopping trips?

And if so, what made such phrases not only have immediate quotability but longer-term stickability too? Was it the power of an original context? The prosody? The story? And what from more recent books has – or might in the future have – that power?

A Familiar Outdoors

Tulip, from Benjamin and Tulip

Sorry: this is a long post written over quite a few days. I hope it still holds together. We’ll start with a very odd but charming landscape drawing from Rosemary Wells. Detail is reduced and reduced: character becomes a threatening little tail from a barebones sketch of a tree. We will come to know this tree, and the owner of the tail, as the eponymous Benjamin and Tulip‘s relationship develops, but for now it is a tree: it is a stage set for a conflict, nothing more.

When Peter Feinnes raises the question if you live in a place, are you more likely to cherish it? (I cited him here but felt as I wrote that piece there was more to say) I wondered – right back to my first thinkings of a research project that didn’t make it to PhD – about depicting familiar landscapes. Here are two to explore: on the left a building identified as “Playschool” in Sarah Garland‘s 1990 book “Going to Playschool” and on the right, a wood in “The Wild Woods” by Simon James.

“Playschool” is different from the woods for me in that the building and its environs are South and West Oxford: the tower behind the school building is the Seacourt Tower in Botley, whereas the woods are everywhere-woods, at least everywhere in England. Does the fact that I recognise how Sarah Garland uses places I recognise alter my reading of the book? Yes it does, and although I can see how she has used locations imaginatively here and in her books about Polly to tell a good story (shortening roads, reworking shop locations) the connection with Oxford that our family felt reading her books when we had left for Durham was an important part of our decision to come back. That map of South Oxford in Henry and Fowler had a real effect in that it was instrumental in our deciding to move back. But this is only (only?) personal: does this pull of recognition have to be there?

I suggest it doesn’t need to be exact; otherwise Polly’s Puffin and the rest would have a limited audience, and Simon James’ grandad would be doomed to walk the woods unnoticed. What they need is a location that can be recognised enough for the reader to sympathise: for example the “playgroup” (I keep the inverted commas because the actual school is a fully-fledged, free-standing Nursery School) just needs to look like somewher readers (adult and child) can sense some familiarity with – as the Head Teacher of that very Nursery once said of a good Early Years setting “lots of interesting things to do and lots of people to do them with.” Woods, likewise, when not places of fantasy and peril, are a mixture of trees and streams and wildlife, and I have written lots on these: they are a unit of understanding in exploring nature in UK, changing from environment to environment, set up, fought for, mourned, looked after, neglected…. but woods are recognisable, a meme, to use Dawkins’ idea, a topos if we follow Jane Carroll’s framework (worked out via Cooper, Garner et al in her book and discussed in part by me here, but see her staff page for an extensive list of writings) – and in Simon James’ everywood, where grandad and granddaughter explore, get wet, meet a squirrel in a place that, if not every child’s common experience, are at least, well, part of their cultural landscape. That itself begs all sorts of questions about cultural capital and landscape, into which this is a first tentative step.

The universal wood of Simon James – and the tree that starts off this blog post, the hiding place of Rosemary Wells‘ disruptive raccoon Tulip – are places the reader can see and say “Yes, I know that place.” Not so, when an illustration seeks to depict a landscape that may be unfamiliar to the reader, and this is worth a brief digression. The lovely Handa from Eileen Browne’s Kenya is at the heart of a number of stories, and still well appreciated, still “going strong,” but not without difficulties: especially where that familiar is a false familiarity, we are in real danger of stereotypes.

There is a tricky line for authors and illustrators – and their readers – to tread in making the places in stories stand for universals. Handa cannot stand for every African – I think the link to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and the danger of a single story is pertinent here. Just in the same way as she found she did not need to see rural Nigerians as without creativity, to see them as simply “poor,” Browne has a difficult task here in showing a girl in rural Kenya as resourceful, generous, but choosing a very traditional rural setting – it was my own third visit to Africa that showed me round houses like these (at any rate, ones that were not built for tourists). “We all know” too readily what Africa is like: it is Kenya, and in Kenya it is a rural Kenya. In setting a story in a place the reader will recognise, the danger is that familiar is also uncontested and over-generalised.

To move for a moment to “adult lit,” this is what makes a book like Sara Maitland’s Gossip from the Forest an intersting read (and I really should stress it is for adults). When she retells Red Riding Hood she begins

Once upon a time there was a man who lived all alone in the forest

and we are intrigued. “That’s not how it starts,” we might think, but we press on, up a rough track until we come (actually in the next sentences) to

He worked in the forest, tree felling, track filling, ditch digging, and deer killing. Power saw and rifle.

Sara Maitland, November: Kielder Forest , Gossip from the Forest Ch 9

In other words, this is the Story of the Woodcutter set in Maitland’s Kielder Forest section, and a bleak retelling it is. However what it does – what the book attempts – it to wake the sleeping wood into being a repository for stories, in particular women’s stories. Now this is an adult example without illustrations, but we might look at other books and ask What is the author/illustrator trying to wake in us about landscape? It might be that the very traditional setting of Janet and Allan Ahlberg is itself a parody trying to provoke – to wake up a sense of fun (Jeremiah in the Dark Woods does precisely that, I think, and the question I have raised before is the kind of challenge it brings: Do they all live in the same wood?). And if it wakes a sense of fun, it might also provoke a question: Does it have to be like that? Or a set of questions: Does Goldilocks need to find that kind of cottage, does Sleeping Beauty have to be blonde, does Red Riding Hood need a woodcutter? The stuff of the classroom discussion, and the problem of “using” children’s literature (see this from a couple of years ago).

We are into the difficult challenge posed by Jacqueline Rose:

Fiction becomes a central tool in the education of the child, and it should be taught to the child according to a notion of competence and skills.

Jacqueline Rose, The Case of Peter Pan or the Impossibility of Children’s Fiction.

Is she at loggerheads with Phillip Pullman when he states

But fiction doesn’t merely enteratin – as if entertaining were ever mere. Stories also teach. They teach in many ways: in one obvious way, they teach by showing how human character and action are intimately bound up together…

Phillip Pullman: Balloon Debate “Why Fiction is Valuable” in Daemon Voices

or am I trying to set them in opposition? I understand what Rose is saying about the confining of literature to the pedagogic practices of the classroom and I take her point about the danger of differing modes of representation between play and a “canon” of children’s literature, I am unsure about the dichotomy she stresses where “rhythm and play” and “narrative fiction” are worlds apart. Indeed, I think play and storytelling have a lot in common even when we are not specifically looking at or engaged in the kind of role-play or dramatic play that might begin “I’ll be the dragon and you be the swamp monster.” [Yes that reference is intentional: read the article {abstract here} if only because it is the best title for an academic article ever!] One of the things they have in common is what Pullman describes above: the intimate relationship between humanity and action. But a step behind that is another commonality: the slipperiness of their language, and how in writing about play and story we are very quickly drawn to using imagery and metaphor.

Here, for example, is Pullman (in my opinion) at his bardic finest:

…Most of all, stories give delight….They bewitch, they enchant, they cast a spell, they enthral…In one way fiction has no more strength than gossamer – it’s only made of words, or the movement of air, of black marks on white paper – and yet it’s immortal. You couldn’t throw it out of the balloon even if you wanted to because if you did, you’d only turn around to find it still there; you would be telling yourself the story of how it fell to earth, or grew wings and flew away, or got eaten by a bird that laid an egg that hatched and out came…another story. You couldn’t help it. It’s how you’re made.

So I return to a word I explored recently: delight and to Bruner’s notion that deep play is playing with fire. Defining a pedagogy of play is this kind of dangerous activity. Are we talking here about how adults can justify something they feel is uncomfortably out of their control? Or moving fun activities up a few notches in status so that there is an entertainment aspect to the input adults make?

Sue Rogers puts it well – so well that I would suggest you, dear Reader, look at her whole chapter Powerful Pedagogies and Playful Resistance in Brooker and Edwards’ Engaging Play, of which the following is a quick highlight:

Two distinct positions are suggested…: first that play is viewed as the undisciplined activity of young children. Thus schools and other early childhood institutions are designed to control and sanitise play so that it reflects adult views of what is good play/bad play. Second, that play is viewed as less important than other activities in classrooms because of the way it is positioned at the margins of what counts as real and necessary activity…

Set against this, opportunities for social pretend play offered children the possibilities to explore identities within their relationships with others and in the process of navigating the dominant pedagogical practices of their classrooms. These identities are not fixed but rather shift with particular play events and social groupings.

Sue Rogers in Engaging Play

Let’s get back outside. Story – and its pull of delight, much the same as play – offer those possibilities to explore identities. That is not to say that they have to be Bibles moralisées, or the instructional tales of early books aimed at children, or even stories with what Jacqueline Rose calls the invisible adult directing the moral purpose, but that there is, in the pull of delight, a need for the familiar reference point as a jumping off into a different world, a different set of speculations. Is Tulip up her tree? Any old tree? What might a tree stand for (I am restraining myslef from more than a link to poor old Vladimir and Estragon and their tree but I found this enlightening) – a useful resource in a forest or a menace from a family history in an ornamental garden? What is life like for the woodcutter – Sara Maitland’s or another storyteller’s? What is life like for Mrs Oldknow when Tolly is gone? The questions – sorry if this sounds fanciful – branch out all over the place, and we have no immediately clear idea, no schema to attach them to. As I have mentioned before, Bettelheim asks What is the kingdom which many fairy tale heroes gain at the story’s end? The ambiguity of this kingdom requires an imaginative leap. In the stories I started with – the anarchic Tulip, the distraught Polly, the girl and her grandfather in the woods – there is always a possibility for this leap beyond the story, but perhaps it is strengthened by the elements of familiarity in a story’s setting: it is like the stepping stone from which the reader can launch themselves into the unfamiliar. For any of us who approach children’s literature with a critical eye, some element of topoanalysis is a vital, enlivening and enriching experience – whether we are booksellers, publishers, librarians, parents, teachers, outdoor instructors: yes, and even grandads who take a walk in the woods with the children.

Sort of footnote: Simon James records that His ideal day out is trekking with The Adventurers (four children he knows and who feature in his book Days Like This) wading through streams – with rucksacks full of chocolate. Sarah Garland, until her change of style and pace with Azzi in Between, wrote and drew in locations largely reflecting her experiences in Oxfordshire and the Cotswolds.

Assorted Immortals

Some interestingly synchronous arrivals today.

I am reading – and enjoying – Dara McAnulty’s book Diary of a Young Naturalist. Quite apart from his candid dissection of his own mental states in a time of change, and what “nature” (my shorthand) gives him, Dara has a gift for a brilliant turn of phrase. He observes the origami of a bat taking flight; he points out that When you visit a familiar place it’s never stagnant. And so one arrival (I’m cheating here, so as to include this book) is my arrival with Dara and family at their new home in County Down.

We all have a place in this world, our small corner. And we must notice it, tend to it with grace and compassion. Maybe this could be mine, this little corner of County Down, where I can think thoughts, watch birds, and swing gently on a hammock. But is this enough? Is noticing an act of resistance, a rebellion? I don’t know but smile anyway because with each passing day I am feeling lighter.

Diary of a Young Naturalist, 14th August

I was also greeted – halfway through scrubbing the kitchen floor – by two books by Flora McDonnell: her collection of writing on Depression and her Out of a Dark Winter’s Night.

And a recommendation of another book – David Lucas’ The Wonderbird – suggests to me I might look again at spirituality and children’s literature. I will reserve The Wonderbird for another time, but want to think about spirituality in books at least accessible to children and young people.

Dara and his writing demonstrate powerfully and painfully his struggle with identity and mental health. Flora McDonnell likewise depicts her small child wandering in the dark, a moving image, beautifully illustrated, of a self not knowing but never giving up in search of personal integration, of “home.” So while this isn’t a review of Dara McAnulty or of either Flora McDonnell book, I do want to look again at some of the complex relationships about literature and spirituality these books lay open to view.

Of the various definitions of spirituality I’ve explored with students, the ones that talk about wrestling with a sense of meaning are often the ones I stumble over. It works for some – maybe it works for older readers. When you are four, there are questions that will lead up to this, but making sense of your life may not elicit challenges to a set of abstracts, but will very often concern affections, attachments, food, bedtime. An ‘ultimate sense of the meaning of life’ is seriously imperilled when a favourite toy gets lost in town or someone needs to buy a present and feels they cannot. These are everyday occurrences but in a good storyteller are recognised as having tremendous significance in the life of a young person. The line from Bettelheim I cited previously (and I’ll be coming back to Little Pete in a bit) about the all encompassing nature of a child’s emotional landscape needs to be taken into account when thinking of a child’s spirituality – but so, I think, does the complexity of that landscape: it is not a two-dimensional fairy tale, but a rich set of interlocking patterns, something Kathleen Harris likens to a kaleidoscope:

“Just as the images produced by the kaleidoscope are extremely complex, varied, and continuously changing, a young child’s spiritual development is similarly intricate, mysterious, and imaginative in nature and relational, interconnected, and directive to both the self and others within a community of learners that is continuously transforming.”

Harris, K (2007)  Re-conceptualizing spirituality in the light of educating young children  International Journal of Children’s Spirituality Vol. 12, No. 3, December 2007, pp. 263–275

This is what makes children’s literature an amazing repository of dilemmas and questions around spirituality – and also a rather hard place to see the fundamental questions. Even defining spirituality is a maze of wordings, ideologies and ideas.

Older readers in the Primary phase – we might return to Gwyn in the Snow Spider – can encounter questions of the transcendent and of belonging frequently enough; what is now termed Young Adult literature has dilemmas in authors from Alan Garner to Patrick Ness. When dealing with spirituality, we have to look at the explicit and implicit ideologies of formal religion, and similarly at thinking that would usually reject those structures; at mental health and wellbeing, compassion: assorted gods* indeed! To simplify (or at least cut short) the argument, this is another of the authors I would present to the MA class on children’s spirituality: Tony Eaude’s definition of spirituality as

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

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

and it is perhaps with this definition that I can look at Children’s Literature and spirituality. It’s not about “making sense” or “struggle” but about finding a place for personal integration.

This is brilliantly illustrated by Dara McAnulty’s moving home: he does not spare the reader his anxiety or sense of loss, or the careful negotiation of new spaces and new relationships, and so good is he at the description that I am back in the move I found so difficult when I was but thirteen or so (a sort of reference to W J Turner). Of course, as a teenager writing a long text in diary form, what Dara gives us isn’t strictly speaking “children’s literature,” but the vivid self-searching, and the political uncertainties of his (and our) worries about the environment are very pertinent. Here, he and his family are settling into their new life, and watching bats and moths in the garden:

This is us standing here. All the best part of us, and another moment etched in our memories, to be invited back and re-lived in conversations for years to come. Remember that night, when fluttering starts calmed a storm in all of is.

Dara McAnulty, Diary of a Young Naturalist, 1st August

Flora McDonnell’s Out of a Dark Winter’s Night is also a tricky book to put in here because the illustrations – bold steps into dramatic landscapes with a child protagonist – might be seen a children’s literature, but then again they might not: is this about dual audience, or the use of one genre (reminiscent of John Burningham) for a different audience? I’m including it here, but I am aware of the complexities of that decision. It stands with Charlie Mackesy‘s The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse as having some place in both the world of the illustrated children’s book and being a book dealing with adult themes illustrated in a style accessible to children.

[As an addendum, I might point anyone who is looking at this post towards my good friend Mat Tobin’s detailed and engaging blog post on looking at picturebooks: his post crossed with mine {hence my insertion here} and the illustrations I have used from Flora McDonnell are best understood from his development of theory around “picturebook codes.”]

The links to mental health would be a blog post – or a book or two – in their own right! Images themselves (a bit of a digression here) are revelatory: the wide sea like in Corey’s Rock, the marvellous play of light – and its absence: there is a shock in Flora McDonnell’s book of a dark sky with just a sliver of moon way up on the top left, and the threat of ultimate extinction – the pages were so dark I couldn’t do them justice. In thinking about evening and night it’s interesting to note how sunsets and bat flight seem to be part of a set of positive and calming images – batflight reminding me of that paean to Light in T S Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock:

The twilight over stagnant pools at batflight, 

Moon light and star light, owl and moth light…

T S Eliot https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/choruses-ôç£the-rockôçø

I said it was a digression – but of course beauty has facets that connect with/reflect back nature; spirituality likewise is interpenetrated by natural occurrences. Hopkins says it much better.

While there are books for a young readership that explore beauty and nature, there are books that are specifically “to do with spirituality,” too, of course: I think of Simon James’s anthology Days Like This, which presents beautiful vignettes of a child’s life, or the religious work of Tomie de Paola: there are others that look at Big Questions about love or death: Chabbert’s The Day I Became a Bird or Lunde and Torseter’s My Father’s Arms Are a Boat. I’ve tried to explore the possibility of existential threat elsewhere, but other questions also arise: Who am I? Why am I like this? Why are things the way they are? At one level, most high quality picture books will ask this kind of question.

I may be creating a circular argument here: high quality texts are in some way “about” spirituality because they ask these questions: the issues of spirituality in texts for children are a marker of high quality. I need to think about this – but certainly subject matter, wording and artwork do contribute to effective communication around the Big Questions. They don’t need step-by-step clarity, still less a glib answer; but they need an affective element, something to draw in the reader, to lead us to an appreciation of beauty, or belonging, or transcendence.

Little Pete‘s succession of good days takes an interesting turn in story 11, Pete and the Sparrow. Chasing a cat that is after a bird, Pete ends up walking on a wall and finds a baby bird.

Pete looked at it. It was a very little bird.

He sat down on the wall, and put his face quite close to it. The bird blinked its bright eyes at him.

Very slowly Pete put out a finger and stroked the little bird on the head. It was soft and warm and knobbly.

Then he put out his finger and did it again, because he had never done such a thing before. Then for a long time he looked right into the bird’s eyes and the bird looked at him.

Then he jumped off the wall and started to walk up the hill again

This quiet, unplanned encounter is a wonder: a wonder to Pete in the story, but also to us as readers: while the story, as ever, has Pete complaining when the bird spotter he meets doesn’t say “please,” central to it is this quiet awe and concern for the baby bird. His reactions are understated – the author, Leila Berg, does do well in not giving us a long explanation: Pete leaves the bird once, and then again when the baby bird is settled, but the chapter ends, tellingly:

Yes, that was a special day.

There is a healing in the ways in which nature impinges on the crises in these narratives. Dara’s world turns a little as the origami of a bat unfolds and flies, and the moths and the stars come out; Flora’s tired, journeying child turns to home. And Pete goes on his way singing.

*The title of this blog post? It’s a laconic quotation from U A Fanthorpe’s poem “Water Everywhere.” In a comic/serious voice she explores the role of water in the modern society:

Officially they do not acknowledge this god.

Officially they honour assorted immortals

In stone buildings with pioneering roofs.

A mention of water when thinking of spirituality does not come amiss. Maybe this is for another day…

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.”

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.