Importance and Binary Opposites

The presentation on What Children Shouldn’t Read for the Reading Spree didn’t go too badly, and reflecting on what did (and didn’t) get heard has been interesting. A few messages went astray both from me and from other presenters, although the “reviews” to listen to are, of course, the people who were actually there, and caught nuances more than the powerpoint slides Twitterers want to argue with. Responses on social media have been thoughtful (and certainly less spittle-flecked) than they were following the first one, at least.  However, reading them does bring me back to Kieran Egan, whose Teaching as Storytelling was a key element of my 20 or so minute ramble. He asks

  • What is most important about the topic?
  • Why should it matter to children?
  • What is affectively engaging about it?

and then  follows this with the challenge to find binary opposites/pairs:

  • What powerful binary opposites best catch the importance of the topic?

Big questions when we look at storytelling and curriculum.   I suggest that they are different for teachers than they are for children. In What Not to Read I suggested we might ask “How do we look at books when we are educators?” and the same is true of how we look at the whole phenomenon of the outdoor curriculum and outdoor storytelling in particular – and in many ways, looking at curriculum is closer than using Egan’s probing questions as being essentially about storytelling.

There are tensions, binaries around ecocriticism and curriculum. Am I storytelling outdoors as a part of the Green Agenda?  How do I deal with a tension around book sharing and how we might orally present traditional tales – there are, for example, practical issues around books and outdoors (as we discovered in a session last year when it poured with rain)?  Teachers’ binaries will be concerned with these curricular issues; children-as-audience will be concerned with, as Egan puts it “the human adventure that began in magic and myth…” and they might be concerned with good and evil, danger and escape (Roald Dahl’s Goldilocks is a wonderful skewing of these concerns with his “delinquent little tot” and her fate at the hands of Baby Bear) or with destruction and redemption (I think at once of a beautiful and politically charged book I have discussed before: Michael Foreman’s A Child’s Garden).

So many binaries to disentangle, when the challenge from Egan is to find the  “binary opposites” that “best catch the importance of the topic” (my emphasis).   This is no small task when selecting books or stories for an outdoor audience; a huge task for teacher or school when considering why they might want to do storytelling and the practical considerations that arise from this plan. Why do we teach how we do?  What prevents us from running on the free rein of professional expertise and creativity?

*

To end with an esprit d’escalier thought about presentations and co-presenters at the Reading Spree, I will take a wide-angle lens view, and ask another of Egan’s questions:

  • What content most dramatically embodies the primary opposites?

This Saturday it was for me testimony from Simon from Whitby – of children in his school who had never been to the beach – and Nicki – a librarian on a TA’s salary, buying library stock from her own pocket.

I went the next day (Sunday) to a panel discussion hosted by members of the Blackfriars congregation about the impacts of poverty and austerity on the educational experiences of children in Oxford. The feelings of the three speakers (and including my Maggie), all in various roles in education, around the squeezed budgets of public services suggests to me the final and most obvious binary: funding and austerity. Life chances are enhanced by things like decent libraries and book provision (and excellent library provision and staffing such as evidenced here) in towns and schools: refusing to answer calls for better staffing and book stock is an ideological choice, to cut public funding and cut taxation.

Cut after cut and cut as politicians tear one another apart and us along with them. There’s a binary for starters.

 

What Not to Read

Kieran Egan in his book Teaching as Storytelling suggests that topics should be chosen according to a model that starts from Identifying Importance (he is using The Vikings as an example), and asks

  • What is most important about the topic?
  • Why should it matter to children?
  • What is affectively engaging about it?

He is asking the teacher to question how does the topic impinge on the child learner as “they begin to understand that the conflicts they see in their families and neighbourhoods and schools, and the conflicts they feel within themselves, are analogous to those that have shaped history,” and how “that values of tolerance, self-restraint and so on are essential for all of us to practice as prerequisites to civilized life.”  Although Egan does take this a lot further (of course), there’s more than a bit of “if I were you I wouldn’t start from here” in this approach to the Vikings – but if we think about this in terms of choices of books to buy for/share with children, it makes an interesting set of questions:

  • What is most important about the themes in this book?
  • Why should it matter to children?
  • What is affectively engaging about it?

What books might I put in a pile that if I wouldn’t ban them I would sigh and think “Do I have to?” I wonder if this set of questions makes me think beyond my usual repertoire, so to test it I reach behind me (with a brief look at the lovely sunset 998976B0-CB3F-4424-BD5A-EE770D074DBBand a quick compulsive posting of the evening skyline) to find a book. The first to hand is the battered (and ergo much loved) family copy of the Tale of Squirrel Nutkin. Since I won’t be exploring this Potter in my Reading Spree talk on Saturday, it will do very well.  It is not my favourite Beatrix Potter but maybe that’s to the good as well.  Let me use these three questions on it, and see what emerges.

What is most important about the themes in this book?

Beatrix Potter’s iconoclastic red squirrel uses riddles to annoy the owl Old Brown when Nutkin should be polite. The tensions are around respect and the consequences of crossing boundaries of politeness. It seems to me that what is most important is rule breaking; tasks are not completed, authority is insulted, danger is courted.

Why should it matter to children?

Naughtiness and rebellion against authority are important themes in the literature of childhood. The Dionysian child brings Carnival and chaos to the adult world: in the Topsy-Turvy of Lewis Carroll, the child Alice is wondering but quite prosaic in the face of the Wonderland Carnival of the Hatter and the shower of cards that tries to overpower her; George brings chaos and murder by poison to his nasty, controlling Granny with his marvellous medicine. Squirrel Nutkin is a jester D4B73E98-8D7D-4D5E-A143-A529F50EDE2F.jpeg with “no nice manners” who takes his jesting too far.  These characters and situations matter to children as they explore the “what ifs” of denying respect, especially in a literary landscape where being good is rewarded.   With Squirrel Nutkin (and many of Beatrix Potter’s male anti-heroes) we are looking into the same, magically enticing world (although in reverse) as the unfortunate Bertha in Saki’s The Storyteller in that what matters is what happens on the disputed land between riot and being “horribly good.”

What is affectively engaging about it?

The uncertain territory allows for an ambiguous outcome, and thus a real sympathy emerges not for the much-put-upon Old Brown, but for his relentless tormentor. The storytellers who go down this path look for affective engagement with chaos and anti-heroes. No wonder the children in Saki are entranced; no wonder the reader delights in collapse of school authority in Matilda or the downfall of George’s grandma, or the disruptions in lives when the wind blew umbrellas inside out and whirled the postman’s letters up… In Beatrix Potter Carnival delights, but the trespassing Benjamin Bunny and the stoner Flopsy Bunnies learn their lesson. What seems to me to be engaging is the piling of misdemeanour on misdemeanour. How naughty can this get before order, tedious and safe, is restored? How naughty can I be before I get into trouble and the “mastering pressure of wearisome necessary things” (Saki again) returns?

***

So this use of Egan is part of my method for my talk at the Reading Spree. How do we look at books when we are educators?  What use is this book that I want to dismiss as anodyne, or creakily outdated? I want to explore ways we can look at children’s literature that allow a sideways glance – and particularly at stories and genres we may not like. This is not to say that any and every book is worth wasting precious story time in a pressured school day, but may be something of a recantation of my views on Blyton or Dahl or Walliams or Rowling, on the Rainbow Fairies and the Mister Men.

Or it may not. I have already Tweeted Joyce Grenfell’s devastating critique of the fake and formulaic Writer of Children’s Books who clearly has never been to Make-Believe Land, and I may have to rant. There is already a section marked NSFW.

Family

This is me:Me, study, Christmas

 

and my brother. 3378BABA-5EAA-47A0-939F-9BA534BA2A83

 

He is quite a bit older than me, and is, in fact, my older half-brother. This is the story:

Our mum has a baby, my brother Glenn, but her husband Jack is killed at sea in WWII. Eventually (in the 50s) she marries my dad, another sailor, Ray, and I come along. A series of miscarriages and my brother being abroad mean I am, more or less, an only child at this time.  Mum dies the year I go to University and my brother and I lose touch. We are eventually brought back together some ten years ago. I am, physically at least, quite like Glenn – to be honest, a shorter and -erm – less athletic version of my brother (and of his son, my half-nephew, Ben).

(I also have another half-brother and half-sister, Mark and Hannah, who are the children of my dad’s second marriage, to Val. Hannah is only about six months older than my oldest child, Joe, but for this post I want to mention Glenn and me).

Glenn is a fool and I am not. That is to say, his role in his local Morris side is that of a fool and I am in no way nimble enough to be a Morris Man. We share common interests in folklore, although mine tend to be bookish and his practical. We are both gardeners. We both have beards and white hair. I had quite a bit of contact with Glenn as I was growing up: I loved it when he came home, loved going on his motorbike from Blandford to Badbury Rings, loved going to visit him and his family – loved his garden, and walking on the wide beaches of the North East coast. In some ways he gave me experiences of outdoors, folklore and family that stay with me. Habitus. We aren’t twins separated at birth – but I am astonished by how strong I now perceive his influence on me to be. Was it really his dancing that led me to Wild Spaces, Wild Magic? How does his social circle of beardy beer drinkers influence my choice of appearance and choice of beverage? Was it our mum’s deep admiration of him that convinced me that here (in some respects) was what growing up was about? How, in the twenty or so years we didn’t meet, did those choices Glenn had made tell me about being who I am?

I am (as I have been before) reflecting on “history’s curved shell,” as R S Thomas says in his poem Eheu Fugaces, on how pasts come together in the present, on these strands of influence, and the more I think, the more I find the Nature/Nurture argument often too simplistic. There are physical differences as well as emotional ones, beliefs and life decisions we have made that are different, life circumstances (his losing his dad so young, for example) that are just not replicated…  Where do our choices come from, and how are they determined by people we meet, or see, or imagine? How do we look back at attitudes and choices?

*

To change tack: lots of things conspire to get me thinking about my family at the moment, but (for the purposes of this blog), I want to think about the struggle for identity so vividly described in Anthea Simmons’ Lightning Mary, a fictionalised account of the early life of Mary Anning.  In it, Mary is trying, with a “head full of pain and sorrow and anger” to establish what it means to be a scientist, coming from a poor background with numerous hardships; how does she identify as a woman without being seen as a potential wife and mother?

“Did I ask to be a woman? I did not… I hate babies and husbands and men and being poor and the sickness and the toil and the injustice. What have we done? Why are we to be punished so?”

Into Mary’s mouth are put the cries of impatience of generations.  Her mother responds,

“Whoever told you that life was fair, Mary? Not I. It is what it is.”

The injustices and hardships are depicted brilliantly in the book: her clashes with the landed gentry and “proper” scientists, her sustaining but troubled friendship with the precious young Henry de la Beche…  Mary becomes a real heroine, although as Simmons acknowledges in her afterword, her story is “profoundly sad,” and the novel ends, rightly, on a down-beat.

My brother’s and my story is not (so far!!!) sad, and neither of us, I think, is a frustrated genius, “born to blush unseen” but we (all) tread the difficult line between self-identity, the urge to be Henry de la Beche’s “friend and scientist” and Anning’s mother’s line that “life is what it is.” But our similarities and differences do highlight the ambiguities and tensions of upbringing and choice, of lack of freedom in various generations, of societal expectations. For us it is just ordinary life, in so many ways, but for Anning it was painful and frustrating.

“There were days, dark days, when I felt as if I had lined up for a race and then been told to take two steps back because I was poor, and then two steps back because Father had been a Dissenter, and then ten steps back because I was not a man…”

Anning in the novel is prickly and wilful, but also determined, resourceful – and ultimately doomed (the passive voce is important, I think) to be by-passed by the scientific revolutionaries with whom she deals. The book is a rallying- cry for young woman thinking about science as a career. It is also a plea for educators to remember how complex the stepping stones of privilege and the nets of disadvantage can be.

 

 

 

Understanding

Does an author (and I will use the term to mean authors and illustrators and author-illustrators; see below) always write with the intention of perfect clarity?

No.

Next question.

I’m thinking of a number of authors of books  children read whose writing has caused me to stop and puzzle. Lots of authors do it, and part of my problem with the Goodreads/Amazon way of presenting books (“What did you use the product for?”) is that too often this leads to a “Didn’t like it? Next!” reaction, the kind of literary equivalent of the whistle stop tour; this approach can (I’m not saying it must) mean we read to write the review and move on, just as we visit this palace to take that picture. “Rushing past… No more time to stay and dream…” as Dowland has it (look, for example, at this version from Les Canards Chantants) .  We actually need time to stay and dream, and puzzling over a book’s ambiguity provides some of that.

Let me very briefly take a few examples: Le Petit Prince; The Rabbit and the Shadow; My Brother’s Book.  I could go on, of course, but these are especially ambiguous in lots of ways. I may be displaying my ignorance here, and to others the answers may be very obvious indeed but

  • Is the little Prince in the novella a hallucination?
  • In The Rabbit and the Shadow,  how many characters have an independent existence? Are they all in a child’s play? Is the soldier, because of their humanity, the one playing?
  • When Guy dives into the maw of the bear in My Brother’s Book, is he already dead?

Notice I haven’t asked these first of all in terms of the author’s intention. I think it’s a different thing to ask “Who does Saint-Exupéry want us to think of when we see the little Prince?” “Does Mélanie Rutten intend us to see this as in some way a “real” adventure, or is it all in the child’s mind?” “Sendak plays with Jack and Guy in other work, and with the notion of death in Outside Over There. Is the Bear the same as the goblins?” These are not so different from exam questions that could be

  • Explore the role of the angelic in Le Petit Prince and Mary Poppins
  • In what ways might the Stag-Rabbit relationship in The Rabbit and the Shadow be a parent-child model and what does this tell us about contemporary models of family?
  • Discuss (with reference to both texts), how death is represented symbolically in the Winters Tale and My Brother’s Book (NB: use of the online game in Winterson’s The Gap in Time will gain extra credit).

None of these nine are, at heart, bad questions, and maybe my query could simply come down to something like “Is it always an author’s task to clarify – or might their work also challenge us to think more , to do some digging?”  We expect it, of course, in some authors (it is central to the work in the Wild Spaces Wild Magic project) and for example in Garner’s “adult” texts, Boneland and Thursbitch (parallels between these two and Le Petit Prince, The Rabbit and the Shadow and in particular My Brother’s Book have not escaped me). We expect it, too, in the Brontës, Sterne, Heaney (hence the digging)… we expect, maybe work for these connections, keen eyes peeled for antecedents, symbols. It seems to me the author makes a choice to be ambiguous: think about the mystery and half-told stories in Jane Eyre until the blunt (and beautifully timed) “Reader, I married him.”  Does a “children’s author” make the same choices?

I don’t think all do – but I do think they can do. I look at Mat’s exposition (again the digging metaphor) of Town is By the Sea or his discussion of the book with the artist here on his blog, and see that there is a real chance for children and adults to think critically and deeply about the books they read.   I also don’t think this always needs to mean that we can work through a line-by-line exegesis or pinpoint exactly where an illustrator is standing when they sketch, but that thinking deeply might mean living with and savouring rather than codifying and commenting on the subtleties of a text or picture. Barring the odd editorial mistake, we must trust the author to have intended a lack of clarity, an image half explained (Simon and the giraffe in Hilary McKay’s The Skylark’s War springs to mind), because life is not neat, every dilemma does not resolve like a Restoration Comedy – and as Saint-Exupéry (half) explains

On ne voit bien qu’avec le cœur

 

 

Back into Storyland

Let’s start with the lyrics:

When a knight won his spurs in the stories of old
He was gentle and brave he was gallant and bold
With a shield on his arm and a lance in his hand
For God and for valor he rode through the land

No charger have I, and no sword by my side
Yet still to adventure and battle I ride
Though back into storyland giants have fled
And the knights are no more and the dragons are dead

Let faith be my shield and let joy be my steed
Against the dragons of anger the ogres of greed
And let me set free with the sword of my youth
From the castle of darkness the power of the truth.

 

I loved this song as a child: perfect Junior School Assembly stuff. I sang it in college with my friend Robert, too: a shared memory of school even though we hadn’t known each other. It colours, also, my understanding of fantasy literature: the wistfulness is something of a challenge and full of the pull of nostalgia, and for me (some way from assembly in Harlow), this folksy version by Martin Simpson of it really rings a chord.

I’m not swapping from wolves to dragons as an interest, but just to record, for National Storytelling Day, the wonderful variety of dragons. Here are some of my favourites, drawn, I ought to say, from the European tradition. The song I’ve cited above always reminds me these days of Tomie de Paola’s The Knight and the Dragon, where the luckless knight and dragon come to terms with each other, make peace and live happily. But there is also Eustace in  C S Lewis whose encounter with – and transformation into – a dragon are an allegory of sin and redemption; there is Rosemary Manning’s urbane and charming R Dragon, standing for the whole of Cornwall, wistful for the time of Arthur; the urbane and vain dragon defeated by The Paper Bag Princess… And there is Smaug the Stupendous.

It seems to me that dragons are (like wolves) personifications of a certain type of aggression, and that the fire they are often surrounded by is its potent symbol. Michael Martchenko‘s wonderful fire in the Paper Bag Princess has it all: all-consuming but ultimately exhausting. And at an uncertain hour, when anger is rife, maybe storytelling can remind us of this: those dragons of fear and anger (and criticism and self-doubt) are in the end going to burn themselves out.

Sauron’s Mission Statement

O Felix Culpa, O happy fault. (Here at 6’14” in English and here at 5’49”  in the original Latin).  Lent is here, the Easter celebrations (from which this quotation comes) will soon be here. And I’m thinking about Evil, or more specifically what fantasy writers envisage their real big baddies are after. I don’t find it straightforward.

In one of the best recent meditations on good and evil – maybe the Best, and certainly the funniest – Good Omens,  Adam, the child who is supposed to be the AntiChrist is entertained with this rhyme:

Oh the grand old Duke of York
He had Ten Thousand Men
He Marched them Up to the Top of the Hill
And Crushed all the nations of the world and brought them under the rule of Satan our master.

This comedy underlies one of the principal themes of the book, in which the mundane and the transcendent meet in drily witty distjuncture and/or a poignant juxtaposition of ideas.

And there never was an apple, in Adam’s opinion, that wasn’t worth the trouble you got into for eating it.

O Felix Culpa.  This is a comic-book version – a satire, really – of the Bosch-like vision of Hell: at heart Pratchett and Gaiman are looking at an anthropology of good and evil, not a grand theodicy, and Adam, the boy at the centre of Armageddon escapes the wrath of God, the disapproval of his demonic progenitor and the very real discipline of his earthly father to and go and play, “half angel, half devil, all human…” with an apple or two he has scrumped on the way.

And in this satire of the Apocalypse, Hell is seen not only as painted in C16th horror, but as an antiquated and bullying bureaucracy; Heaven is imperious and out of touch, The downright nastiness of a Medieval Inferno is offset by an inability to manage modern technology; rank on rank the hosts of Heaven don’t really know what God plans are for Armageddon. These failures of evil occur elsewhere: the Big Bad  (were)Wolf in Grandma’s bed is fooled by Red Riding Hood needing a poo, and his descendants, such as Catherine Storr’s Stupid Wolf,  or Wile E Coyote  have similar problems.If we were to apply to other narratives the same comic mismatches, we might find Sauron losing his keys or Voldemort not managing a bus timetable.

Very often Bad does not triumph, it seems, because it is inefficient. This inefficiency  allows Good to triumph and Evil to defeat itself. Maybe the best look at the ineffectual evil sidekick for me are Pain and Panic, whose plain idiocy is a thorn in the flesh for Disney’s marvellously impatient Hades in Hercules.  However, although minor characters in Rowling’s battle for domination are allowed comic inefficiency, and the mean squabbles of orcs allows Tolkien a sideways swipe at something that falls short of Evil, a dull, malicious nastiness, there are in the big baddies of fantasy depictions of evil that go beyond the silly, the clumsy, the mean. What stirs in Earthsea, the intrusive Dark in Susan Cooper’s sequence: these are not to be discounted as minor threats.  It therefore becomes important to ask: what are they evil for? Why are these presences evil?

What these great Lords of Darkness are hoping to gain is not always clear. If we suppose Sauron gains the One Ring, and the new Age that is ushered in is his dominance, the destruction of all beauty, the enslaving of the free peoples, then what? And why?

Sauron is given a backstory in the Silmarillion in the Lucifer-like fall of his master Melkor, Morgoth, the dark Enemy of the World, so that

…he rose like a shadow of Morgoth and a ghost of his malice, and walked behind him on the same ruinous path down into the void.

but this is still insufficient. Malice might be at the heart of the dominating and destructive works of Sauron and Melkor, and a part of their destruction, but at the start we are not really sure what they intend but destruction.

At one level, they are evil the way they are evil in order to provide the foil the good guys need: that there is a personal element to Voldemort’s hatred of Harry Potter is one of the strengths of the series; the growing malaise in Earthsea likewise gives the books their unique flavour. At another level it can be argued that these evils reflect a societal understanding of what evil does, and in many cases there is either an explicit description of how that evil has come about in the story or in a further text (such as the Silmarrillion): a Fall, of sorts, and a touchstone for what the author/audience might see as evil.

But how do they make sense of their existence? What, to turn to my title, are their aims and mission? What is their spirituality? In a moment of clarity, does Sauron at some point think “today was a day well spent”? What are Sauron, or Voldemort, or Cooper’s Riders left with if they triumph? It seems to me they have (only) Milton’s vision of

Regions of sorrow, doleful shades, where peace
And rest can never dwell, hope never comes
That comes to all; but torture without end
Still urges, and a fiery Deluge, fed
With ever-burning Sulphur unconsum’d…

Perhaps that Nash-Tolkien  vision from the World War (think Menin Road or Wire as images of destruction, both linked here in the IWM) is simply of a grim, spreading, malicious destruction. The malice of the orcs, the cruel, sniping pettiness of Rowling’s OfSTED-like Dolores Umbrage are part of the bigger project as they pick apart anything good or beautiful.

The overall project, the destruction of human endeavours to be complete, at one, seeking peace and truth is what Sauron and Cooper’s Dark (and maybe Voldemort) are trying for.  To see this vision we might compare Nash’s Ypres Salient at Night with Tolkien’s account of the triumph of evil in the Fifth Battle:

Great was the triumph of Morgoth, and his design was accomplished in a manner after his own heart: for Men took the lives of Men and betrayed the Eldar, and fear and hatred were aroused among those that should have been united against him.

In other words, for Tolkien’s personification of evil, the engendering of destructive hatred is the end…

For Rowling? Apart from his vendetta against Harry Potter we only seem to have Voldemort’s desire for power: the struggle to frighten, to subjugate, to use those who admire and fear that power to bring more people under his rule. Is there a weakness in the narrative here – or is the threat of this fear, the menace that comes with his followers enough? Sauron  brings about strife and disunity; Voldemort seeks power and uses fear to recreate the world to his own ends. That leaves me with Cooper’s Dark and LeGuin’s failing powers. I think they are a subtler depiction of evil and will have to wait for another day.

Persisting Fairy Tales

Once (of course) upon a time, there lived three disciplines, and they lived in a cottage in the woods or possibly on separate parts of a campus. The Big one was called Anthropology, the Middle-sized one was called Folklore and the Teeny-tiny one was called Children’s Literature…

And one day Alan Garner and a whole load of other people threw open to all of them (rather more than three!)  the question

Where are your stories?

That question, which he asks in story-form as well as lectures, might be seen as being as disruptive as the breaking-and-entering “delinquent little tot” Goldilocks’ intrusion into the bears’ cottage. In Boneland – not Children’s Literature, I know – Garner asks his storytelling ancestor this massive question about the roles of story and culture. The Man says he “dreams in Ludcruck…the cave of the world” and in response to the question about stories, begins with an origin tale about Crane. The Man’s stories (which are, after all, Garner’s stories) continue to ring true for the human newcomers to what we now might call the Peak District, and so his dancing and singing are not in vain: the stories are handed on. Garner talks about this relationship of place and story passionately, eloquently. They become origin stories, spirit stories, and mix with concerns through the ages to give Garner his alfar and his Morrigan. This kind of reconstruction and continuity gives a lot of power to the way Garner (and Townsend and Rowling and Pullman and Lewis….) themselves tell stories, drawing some of their authority (if that’s the word) from storytelling of past times. If there is continuity here it is because folklore scholarship has enabled a sort of  continuity of sources. Leafield’s Cure-all Water, its Black Dog, all the Black Dogs maybe, and the standing stones at Rollright and elsewhere are examined by writers such as Katherine Briggs and Neil Phillip and often re-presented by Briggs, Lively, Rowling et al. One form of continuity.

We see another in the engaged and detailed work exploring landscape and language in Rob Macfarlane’s Landmarks which, as he writes of Richard Jeffries, is

fascinated by the strange braidings of the human and the natural.

Here, language is seen to contain elements of older land use, beliefs and practices. Sparrow-beaks explain fossilised sharks teeth and a tuft of grass looking like a bull’s forehead is bull-pated in Northamptonshire.

I have written before about folk tales that explain places, and how these “fairy” tales do provide a sort of continuity, although I think that possibly the syncretism of European story and British folk tales brings its own obscurity: Garner is on his own ground by Seven Firs and Goldenstone, but he is not suggesting that le Petit Chaperon Rouge lived in Congleton.

Where we get into trickier areas is when folklore is pulled into service elsewhere. Gargoyles and grotesques become evidence of a continuing belief in goblins; stories of boggarts become somehow real. I have looked behind me in darkening woods, been impatient to leave a lonely valley, and must acknowledge the pull of this argument, just as Garner steps (nimbly) between his own writing and rural practices and traditions in discussing the roots of his great novel Thursbitch. This talk is chilling, enlightening, inspirational – so that Big Bad Wolves, the Green Knight, Garner’s vision of story and space walking together pepper this blog:  turn but a stone and start a þurs. 

But can this is universalised?   I suppose my problem comes down to how much is understood but not spoken and certainly not (until recently) written. Can we see a Jack-in-The-Green and know for certainty this is the same as the carving on that roof boss, and that this is a continuing belief?  Can we really link Star Carr and Abbots Bromley? Did my great-grandma know quite who she might be warding off by crossing the fire-irons at night?

I would love to see those links clearly. We have tantalising hints, shadows, half-stories (Katherine Briggs’ doctoral work documenting the continuing traditions in literature in folklore across the Interregnum is fascinating) that might lead us in all sorts of directions, and Garner’s defence of place and story should not be overlooked. Rob Macfarlane’s “strange braidings” go between town and country but also between present and past, and how far back they link and join we can speculate  – but we cannot know. Briggs puts it well when she comments on the recurring concerns in Arthurian stories:

A remarkable thing about the Arthurian stories is the way in which primitive themes reappear amongst the most sophisticated embroideries. It seems as if the matter of Britain had a magnetic quality which attracted every type of myth towards it

This “magnetic quality,” it seems to me, is a good image of how Children’s Literature, especially when it explores themes that themselves arise from traditional tales, draws to itself fears and triumphs from former times. Piers Torday’s There May be A Castle is a good example, where quests and knights and woods and danger are explored: Abi Elphinstone, too, works magic here. Perhaps our best bet is to see that similar concerns – fears of the outside as well as celebrating its joys, the worrying menace of wolfish men, women placed outside the Christian context by their (sometimes useful) cunning, half-seen wanderers in a twilight wood –   continue to be represented in cult and place and story.

Apologies for the weak ending here: I think what it means for me is that, studying Children’s Literature I have to pay due attention to Anthropology and Folklore as fundamental to my understanding of so many works I want to study. You can see it clear as day in Garner’s Elidor or Weirdstone – but what about other books – younger children’s books, for example –  I am trying to look at, where the outdoors is a challenging place?