I love being outside, and from camping and hiking with the Woodcraft Folk on, I’ve loved storytelling outside too. I love warm summer days teaching, and this time earlier in July with Home Start was a joy in so many ways (I mentioned them in the previous two posts). 8325C7B0-0434-46B0-8C8C-F84C42D6F1E4Anna from Home Start has been kind enough to let me reuse the pictures she took, and I’m vain enough to have picked this photo. “You’ve got your gob open,” was the immediate family comment. Yes, I have: it is at once in the same tradition and a long way from all those MSS of the medieval Magister spouting in a lecture.  I was reminded sharply while I was working with their volunteers of the story in Kevin Crossley-Holland and Jill Paton Walsh’s Wordhoard in which the new teacher in the monastery school lets the boys out to read and learn in the orchard.

The perspicacious will also note that I’m not reading a story at this point, but discussing an article, down by my side – specifically Wyver et al (2010) The Ways to Restrict Children’s Freedom to Play: the problem of surplus safety, Contemporary Issues in Early Childhood Vol 11, no 3 – to explain something about safety and families. I love exploring that article; it is such a judicious mix of research synthesis and plain common sense.  But of course I did it with a story and it’s that pedagogic tool I first want to reflect on.

Teaching isn’t stand-up, I know, but there is always some room for a story in teaching, whether it’s through sharing a book (Anthony Browne this time; maybe Up The Mountain next time?), or a traditional tale told orally (next time I meet Home Start will be the autumn: I think hallowe’en pumpkins may get a look-in), or an anecdote to illustrate a point. This episode in our morning’s training was about giving parents permission – if such a thing is needed – to do a little bit of thinking ahead and then to let the children explore. The group picked up on the phrase surplus safety.  It’s not without risk, and the story I told was of a boy who fell while out of Forest School whose dad said to me “He never has an accident with me; he’s always in his pushchair.” The spin I put on it was that children need to be given opportunities. As Shirley Wyver and team point out:

They [sc children] will make postural adjustments to maximise stability and efficiency….

and they suggest that early protection from falling can limit the problem-solving a child needs to do on unfamiliar terrain. We discussed the section in Wyver’s article where she suggests it’s a mistake to think small children are not good walkers: children need to exercise (and so, often, do we). And walking brings us away from the adult as in charge, the story-teller/performer.

SDB7B4F32-2A3A-4B43-8D47-1D6FD937FACAtory is not all that happens outside. The very experience itself affords the chance to chat, to wander, to find a new way or a new place – and this is the problem with story as outdoor pedagogy: it is still too close to the teacher-as-Master. Again, this was something we discussed, and I confessed how hard I find it not to jump in and explain: this is called n…; that x is brilliant because it smells like…  While there is clearly a place for “the naming of parts,” for the acquisition of agreed names, there must also be time for independent discovery, for the friend who brings you an egg-shell they have found, for the ladybird on the hand, the sound of the wind in the grass, or even, simply – as one of the people I was with pointed out – that not all grass in green. Warneford Meadow lived up to my praise of it: the grasses were purple and tawny-gold.

Doing the Tudors

It was interesting to talk to some teachers about the work I’ve been preparing around traditional tales for Outdoor Classroom Day, and something of a challenge to find a set of stories that linked with “Doing the Tudors” and “Doing the Romans” to then tell the children. Given the school I was working in, the Romans proved easier than I’d thought: with Akeman Street on the doorstep of Combe village, we pondered what Roman life was like off the roads, away from the imposed civilisation of the invaders. Yes, there were wolves.
For the Tudors, I went for a story that had a version known in the time of Elizabeth I: The Three Heads of the Well. I started from this version, and cut and reshaped and simplified. It helped that the school had a real well…and the three heads that provided me with their magic (‘weirded me” as the language of one version goes) through the day were maybe Katharine Briggs, Terry Jones and Alastair Daniel.  Actually there were more: Adrienne Duggan, the ever-at-my shoulder Mat, the inspirational Neil Phillip… and more – see below…

But back to Doing the Tudors, the point of this post. The “Doing” of topics is always an uneasy business, with that sense of finality, of completion, a dusting of hands and a walking away. I fell into this language myself (I don’t  think I noticed the children or staff using it), and was conscious of how it brought with it another meaning: finished but maybe superficially, as in “We did Oxford yesterday; is this Stonehenge?” Layers of detail and meaning lost.  Having just gone back to my first postgrad research in Tudor history through reading Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Thomas Cromwell, I was well aware of the complexities of “doing” and “finishing off” the Tudors. I know Year 6 had not been discussing the gaps in extant correspondence in this archive or that, of course, but if I thought my “doing” laid bare a “been there, done that” assumption, I need not have worried.

I had chickened out of telling the story with the death of the Queen at the end of The Three Heads, and softened the part about the King’s bribe to the cobbler to take the horrid step-sister away. Some of this was about brevity and tellability, and some of my choices, I reckoned, were about taste.  The children were not to be fooled, and although they enjoyed the story, I was soon in a discussion about what a “real Tudor” would make of the way it concluded. They wanted – in their words – a (they said “the“) “cruel ending.” Beheadings or divorce would have been in order. They appreciated the cruel (step)sister going off with the cobbler – but didn’t see that there was a bad ending somehow in her having to work for a living. Such is the power of storytelling and literature in the curriculum – but note to self: a Roald Dahl ending with blood and shame would have been truer to the earlier versions and maybe pleased my young audience more. Those children had Done the Tudors well.

Alongside what help I and my tutelary spirits could be for “doing the Tudors” or whatever, there were two other magic presences in this day’s work: Jackie Morris and Rob Macfarlane, artist and wordsmith of the great The Lost Words, whose work I shared with every group. It was wonderful to read the short acrostic for Ivy, (“the real high flyer… you call me ground-cover; I say sky wire”) and see the Reception class lap it up, and the “top Juniors” appreciate their understanding of an acrostic. Best of all, as the younger children went back to their room, one of them pointed to the ivy on the school wall, and another said “I say sky wire.” That really surpassed all the messages I could hope to give about links between language and literature and environment. We couldn’t have said we’d “done” language and the environment any more than I have “done” the Tudors, but that five year old knew a nature metaphor when he saw it.

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?




Wolf Moon

I missed the superbloodwolfmoon thing this week: cloud hid it in Oxford, although lots of amazing pictures emerged around the place. I tried, in compensation, to write a blog post linking back to my earlier explorations of Wolves and Red Riding Hood (my “Jack Zipes schitck” as someone described it) and the stuff I mull over a lot around outdoors and storytelling and wolves, and maybe (although this is where I stumbled and tripped) on the Black Dog of depression, nipping my heels nearly all this Christmas.

However, the death of Mary Oliver prompted me to buy a collection of her poems and comment on them. Social Media had all sorts going on – as is the way, some friendly and some not-so-friendly – but with today’s cold weather in England, I thought I would cite one of her bleaker pieces as apt for the weather and the moon:

Wolf Moon

Now in the season
of hungry mice,
cold rabbits
lean owls
hunkering with their lamp-eyes
in the leafless lanes
in the needled dark;
now is the season
when the kittle fox
comes to town
in the blue valley
or early morning;
now is the season
of iron rivers,
bloody crossings,
flaring winds,
birds frozen
in their tent of weeds,
their music spent
and blown like smoke
to the blue of the sky;
now is the season
of the hunter Death;
with his belt of knives,
his black snowshoes,
he means to cleanse
the earth of fat;
his gray shadows
are out and running – under
the moon, the pines,
down snow-filled trails they carry
the red whips of their music,
their footfalls quick as hammers,
from cabin to cabin,
from bed to bed,
from dreamer to dreamer.

Superb, and as bleak as the landscape and weather she is writing about.  It’s over ten years since I began to explore children’s literature as means to look at the outdoors, and literature continues to be a lens I use to look at how we react to landscape. My brother, I note (as I type), is in the snow at the Cat and Fiddle – close to Thursbitch in the snow. I think of Jack Turner, and the car off the road we saw in the fog by there:  worlds collide.

In Wolf Moon Oliver picks up the themes of Death and cold –  “his belt of knives,” “his gray shadows” –  in an almost Grendel (ettin or þurs)-like way; this is a Big Thing to terrify, with the wolves’ howling as the “red whips of their music” disturb the night. Because it is (perhaps) a simple point to make, but I feel it needs making: Mary Oliver is a good poet, not always writing comfortable nature poetry about childhood or inspirational lines about

I was thinking
so this is how you swim inward,
so this is how you flow outward,
so this is how you pray.

Five A.M. in the Pinewoods

and her sharp eye and the writing that comes from it is able to look at the aspects of nature that humanity finds inimical – and has, in some ways dedicated a lot of its evolutionary history to conquering.  She is able to write about the “roaring flamboyance” of the sea and the “hallowed lime” of owl pellets: the memento mori we can gain outdoors  that I mentioned in my earlier post.

The response of literature to the winter is itself interesting, and writers such as J R R Tolkien (think Caradhras the cruel) and Kenneth Grahame give vivid pictures of its dangers: although snow in The Wind in the Willows is softening, almost redemptive, the creepiness of Mole’s wintry experiences in the Wild Wood are very expressive “Then the faces began…Then the whistling began…Then the pattering began.” The winter wood; the dark wood; img_1355the wild wood as evening closes in. More modern writers have given us some great examples of snowy landscapes and confronting death: Philip Pullman works the theme extremely well in Northern Lights; Michelle Paver is terrifying in her adult book Dark Matter but also richly descrtiptive as Torak  battles the limits of human (and animal) endurance in the snow, and (again for adults – I wonder if this is significant) Garner deals with death and loss in the ice in Boneland, a death that stalks both strands of the book in different ways.

It seems to me that the immediate reaction is to see “outdoors” as somewhere positive, just in the same way as Mary Oliver is seen as uplifting – but we take on these broad judgments without thinking at our peril: literature does well to remind us that the outdoors is not always friendly, as sudden blizzards by Cat’s Tor can show.

Hope you’re OK, Mark.

“George took his lantern”

John Masefield ‘s The Box of Delights is a fantasy published in the 1930’s which draws on the hopes and fears of people after the first war, and set in the English landscape. We meet not only characters from the earlier work The Midnight Folk but the story deepens as the protagonist,  Kay, battles forces of witchcraft intent on destroying the traditional English Christmas by ruining  the thousandth midnight Christmas celebrations at the Cathedral.    The Box of Delights is a sequel that in many ways surpasses the nightmarish first book (pace Rob Maslen, who praises the Midnight Folk here) and its narrative strength means it has also made a radio play, a classic BBC TV adaptation and more recently a well received stage representation. All this is summed up very neatly here in the Guardian, and explored by Jake Hayes with his usual depth and perspicacity in his Tygertale blog for this Advent, and it is the language when we come to the denouement that I find striking  – I’m coming to this.

Throughout it is Kay’s relationship with Cole Hawlings that sustains the narrative. Cole is a travelling Punch and Judy Showman, but so much more than just an itinerant busker: like his successor, Susan Cooper’s Merriman Lyon, he is at the centre of a struggle against evil, represented (as in the previous book) by the murderously wicked Abner Brown. As with Merriman, we are allowed to see only snatches of the battles the adults are fighting; there are more than symbolic “wolves running,” allies we do not always recognise, dangers for the adults as well as for the children…  But there is an important set of differences: while Merriman/Merlin openly entrusts the Matter of a New Britain to the children in Cooper’s Silver on the Tree, Cole Hawlings, having helped Kay restore the rightful place of Midnight Mass in the embattled Cathedral, is still looking back: the nostalgia for Old England is strong in the final pages of The Box of Delights as, speeding towards the Cathedral, we hear the bells start up in all the little churches, and meet the monastic community of the Cathedral’s past. And while we are flying along in Herne the Hunter’s unicorn-pulled sleigh, to move the recently freed Bishop and Dean and choir (&c., &c.) from some kind of sub-Trollope or All-Gas-and-Gaiters imagery, we have a Christmas hymn in a folk idiom, which Masefield calls a carol: here is the text.  What surprised me on my first reading as a child, and still surprises me, is that Masefield gives the singing of it to the ambiguous dating-from-Pagan-times Cole Hawlings.

[Incidentally, the first time I heard this song, Móirín Na hEaglaise, sung by Nóirín Ní Riain, I thought of this carol, with the higher sections or answering melody being used in verses 4 and 7. I have tried it, although unsuccessfully: it may need something more robust, where maybe the last line of each verse is the “chorus after each stanza” Masefield notes].

The carol is a remarkable piece.  I’d like to look at a few details to see what they tell us about The Box of Delights:

Let’s start, like Masefield, with George. His very name seems to set the lyric in England, maybe even rural England, and it occurs in four of the verses. He is the figure of compassion, a carefulness that twice calls him to the byre (a beautifully localising word: again we are in rural England), where he first lets in a poor couple and then comes back because of the trouble and sees the Christ Child and then the kings.

Lantern, byre, hay, stable – even inn and snow – put the Nativity in the same landscape as The Box of Delights. The “-a” at the end of the shorter lines moves this further into the folk-song idiom, although what is and isn’t a folk song (a bit like what is and isn’t a carol) is disputable. Perhaps the most truly rural – or maybe best attempt – at a “country tone” is the line George heard a trouble in the beasts. It sounds like my Father in Law.   It is snowy and dark, George has a lantern to go to the stable/byre – and England receives its revelation.

And there within the manger bars
A little child new born-a,
All bright below a cross of stars
And in his brow a thorn-a.

The Mother, the Child, tenderness – but never too far from the cross and the Pieta: we are in Durer’s bleak theology, with those cross-like structures present in the nativity scene in his Madonna on a Grassy Bank.  George’s vision is mystical; we are with Durer, with Chesterton and Gill, in seeing a Gloria in Profundis, although what Masefield presents is a transcendent Child, a submarine vision of humanity divinised not “the height of the fall of God.”

What happens next is interesting from the point of view of a rural poem. The visitors are not shepherds but Kings. I am unsure whether to read anything into two great kings and Melchoir but will assume we needed Melchoir for scansion and rhyme. They bring Eucharistic gifts, too – and at a practical level welcome ones for the poor Family – bread and wine.  The ecclesiastical imagery is extended with the mention of robes. We have, by now, a crib scene – but where are the shepherds?

They – and we – are there in the person of George. The plain people of England (to misappropriate a phrase from Myles nagCopaleen) kneel down with the farm worker in homage of

that dear Babe today
That bears the Cross and Crown-a.

In looking back to a rural, more innocent time, we are at the heart of the nostalgia project that occupied so much thinking in the post-War period; we are also in that hankering for a countryside of freedom and adventure and risk that is at the heart of Masefield’s two books, and which informs Lewis, Garner and Cooper  — and… and …

And when Cole Hawlings – the theologian Ramon Lull – the pagan countryman and the lost medieval mystic – sings of this past time when George knelt down and prayed-a we are invited to a personal piety that is itself nostalgic, a recreation after The War to End Wars, of a pious peasantry, a dedicated episcopacy and (and here we are into a whole new set of thoughts about the villains in this story) the defeat of corrupt and self-serving greed. Not a bad wish for Christmas in the inter-war period; not a bad wish for this Christmas, either, but I am mindful of how Masefield’s vision played out in the following years: Masefield knows it is a “nice dream,” as Kay admits at the end of the book.

You Don’t Know Who You Are

A quick and mostly comic burst of pictures on Twitter show Edutwitter contributors in their adolescence(s) as a curious mix of Addams Family, aspiration  and rebellion. Who do we want to appear to be? Who did we want to appear to be? If it isn’t too convoluted, who did we want to appear to aspire to become?  It is enough to send me back to the self-reflection (or gnawing introspection, maybe) of my previous posts. I am still mulling over those things that marked my Lent and Holy Week and Easter Week around how I “know who I am.” Let’s ponder the outward appearance as discussed on Twitter, in the context of how we appear now and how we presented in a different time. Time is the crucial thing, fundamental to a fluidity of who we might have appeared, how we acted and the motives for our actions.  In the words of R S Thomas’ Eheu Fugaces,

…with our ear to history’s
curved shell we listen
to mixed sounds…

The curve of the shell changes the meaning; to change the metaphor, fundamentally change in time changes the lenses through which the past is viewed.

Here am I, and as a bit of a contrast (but in no way a real comparison) here’s my friend and colleague Jon, both of us 21-ish, but some 20 years apart. Old enough in our twenties to be recognisable, but in crucial ways different from how we are now. I think I can see the Jon I know now – a bit; I guess I can see me in that tweedy boy with the curly hair and wary eyes, but of course I was there, just south of the cloisters in Chichester with friends.  I also know Jon because the picture he has shared fits with the story he tells of himself. These things are easier when they are consistently represented. More detail might add to the story, make sense of the coronet of spiked hair and the straight-into-the-camera gaze, but as Thomas says, the message is already distorted by “history’s curved shell.” One thing I am wary of is the quick diagnostic.

At least I know how I appeared, and remember how I presented: a nice young man, a conformist, maybe a bit scared of the world. Who did I want to become? I’m not sure if I know “who I was,” then, although I can give myself some hasty headlines now, along the lines of “crazy mixed up kid,” although that’s a “quick diagnostic”too.  I know I was scared of being found out, of being known as a shallow imposter. That stays with me.  I know what I lacked toward myself – and probably others – was the word I keep coming back to: compassion.  More baldly, I don’t think then I knew who I was either. I think I wrote something about that time about being a mix of St Francis and the Big Bad Wolf. Dipsychos. Of the two of us, Jon looks to me the wolfier, but maybe that’s just my prejudices.

So here we are now. Something like convergent evolution appears to have taken place.

However, the outward appearances of a growing uniformity are only that: they might only be dress-code deep. Now there’s a phrase that just fell onto the screen!  Only by knowing ourselves and one another do we move beyond the shallow expectations. Jon and I may bring a bit of Country Living to a working relationship, but friendships are not made of tweed, a fragile, passing world, where moth and rust disfigure (Matt 6:20); they are made in knowing the other, and learning about ourselves in the process.

What constitutes “knowing who you are”? How we dress? What we say? What we do? What we read? Our Goodreads account, our Twitter presence? And when do we say it? This moment? That? A past year, a just-gone moment? This photo is of me in June 2018, in the same place as the first one of me. Is this “now” a real me? What about some moment still to come?  What will survive of us? Maybe the good we exhibit in our relationships?  We are in Larkin territory – coincidentally, in Chichester, where that boy with the curly hair had his photo taken. This is a good critical reading of Larkin’s poem An Arundel Tomb and here is my photo and then  here is the text of the poem itself.  Larkin’s cool eye looks at the memorial of a married couple and he comments

Time has transfigured them into

To try and say who I am solely through how I used to look or how I wanted to present myself is misleading, dress-code deep in itself. Fun though this is on Twitter, it is in the growth, the people we grow with, the people we help to grow, that “who we really are” becomes shown; in friends like Jon, and Mat, and all the others at work; in Maggie, in my dad; in Stephen and Robert and all my friends I rarely see; and my kids who live here or visit and call. Larkin is as cynical as I am wary, but I sense he, like me, would like

to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.


Contains Cannibalism and Barry Manilow

This was my “trigger warning” for our Becoming a Reader class this week in which we rounded off our work on traditional tales with a rendition of The Story of the Grandmother – and the meeting at the crossroads with Bzou, the werewolf –  and a look at how culture informs our reading of a text, for which we used Copacabana.

I rather like this session: “What’s a ‘showgirl’?” “What do we understand by a ‘dress cut down to there’?” and just who did shoot who[m]?  It allows me to present the work of Hilary Janks and Mary Roche not just as ways to look at children’s reading but also at us as adults becoming readers. I am fortunate to be able to explore this further with Mat in his Reading for Pleasure MA module tonight.

Janks makes a powerful point – or set of points – here:

“…decoding is often equated with reading and is associated with functional or basic literacy….The interrogation of texts, reading against the text, is tied to critical literacy and implies that readers recognise texts as selective versions of the world; they are not subjected to them and they can imagine how texts can be transformed to represent a different set of interests.”

and if I had one wish for our third year students, or maybe even just a wish arising from this module, it would be that their time at Brookes  has allowed them to develop just this critical literacy –  that policy, just like Garner or Shakespeare or the EPPE review, can only ever present selective versions of the world. I’m not asking for cynicism, or a world in which the principal graduate attribute is becoming a Radio 4 listener – but for an engagement with ideas which asks about viewpoint and opinion and world view in a critical way.

What to do with a Big Bad Wolf 12:00-13:00

Apparently the talk didn’t go too badly – it certainly was well attended by many admired colleagues from admin and teaching/research teams as well as some amazing visitors.
Here are the principal ideas, anyway:

There are multiple versions of the story of Red Riding Hood, from the “original” (which isn’t original at all), complete with Woodcutter and everyone (sometimes even the Wolf) living happily ever after. This story is very effectively explored in Jack Zipes’ The Trials and Tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood.
What if she isn’t little?
What if the wolf isn’t a wolf?
And why does this story have such an appeal?
I cited Zipes (2012:21) “A simple, imaginative oral tale containing magical and miraculous elements…related to the belief systems, values, rites and experiences of pagan peoples,” and suggested that the story has a strong, if obscured, ritual element to it, and maybe this has links to the kind of woodland initiation rituals in W Africa: it could be the story of a rite.
Red Riding Hood can therefore be read as a risk story with ritual elements way beyond the immediate, with a population of marginalised and dangerous characters.
In the tangled roots of this forest (“Stumble trip, stumble trip”) there are wolfshead-men, witches, the only half-forgotten memories of sacrifice, and the never-to-be-forgotten lesson that

I hope this makes sense. The “Jack Zipes’ schtick” is appropriately acknowledged (see reading, below) but I wish I could have said more about:

  • The wargus and the homo sacer
  • Liminality and the medieval settlement
  • Paganism and the Wild Man.

Too many ideas to cram into a lightweight lunchtime.

Cosgrove, D. (1982). Social formation and symbolic landscape. Madison, University of Wisconsin Press.
Forth, G (2007) Images of the Wildman Inside and Outside. Folklore Vol 118 (December 2007): 261–281
Jarvis, P (2009) Play, narrative and learning in education: A biocultural perspective. Educational & Child Psychology Vol. 26 No. 2: 66-76
Rosendale, S. (2002). The Greening of Literary Scholarship: literature, theory and the environment. Iowa, University of Iowa Press.
Zipes, J. (2012) The irresistible fairy tale: the cultural and social history of a genre. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press
Zipes, J. (1983) The trials and tribulations of Little Red Riding Hood: versions of the tale in sociocultural context. London: Heinemann

Red Riding Hood’s Reality Check

I’m due to give a talk next week, and someone – not unkindly – asked if it would be my “Jack Zipes Shitck.” And actually I’m rather hoping not. What I will be doing is looking at

  • Werewolves – and why children are still scared of wolves in England
  • Red Riding Hoods – and why authors and illustrators love them
  • The Great Wood – and why it exists in our minds (hearts?) if not for Ordnance Survey

So, Jack Zipes (see his work here) and Perry Nodelman (here’s his enviable staff page) will hang over this as my tutelary spirits, but I hope, even in something fairly light, to go deep into the dark wood.

And out.

In an hour.