Accommodating monsters: Books as Doorways

An important property of any doorway is that you can close it, and the same goes for a book. I was prompted to this thought by some interesting observations on Balaclava, the forum of the SAS (no, not the special forces, the Scattered Authors’ Society) regarding the misguided urge some people have (publishers among them) to sanitise children’s literature and make it ‘nice’.

‘Anodyne’ as applied to literature is something I have discussed elsewhere. What I want to do here is examine the misunderstanding that leads some people to think that children’s literature should be soft, cosy, reassuring and only that – with no place in it for anything even remotely frightening or disturbing.

They mean well, of course (though we know where good intentions lead). The loss of innocence is a grievous thing and the desire to preserve it as long as possible (in an increasingly hostile world) is perfectly understandable, but there is an analogy to be made here with disease: the best way to preserve your children against the physical ills of this world is not to keep them from any exposure to germs but rather to fortify their constitution and build up their resistance.

‘Ignorance is bliss,’ they say; ‘what you don’t know can’t harm you’ – but that is dangerous counsel. For one thing, it overlooks the fact that you can only control a small part of what gets into a child’s head; and besides, children being human, there is some there already that is strange and dark. Better to fortify them with good books that allow them to make their own excursions into the Dark Wood – because though the power of books is undeniable, we should not overlook the fact that the reader remains in charge.

Books, as I have said elsewhere, are doorways into other worlds – but it is essential to grasp that, like doorways, they can be shut. If a story is frightening you can escape and shut the door behind you (there is a family legend of my brother, when very young, switching off the wireless (as it was then) just as a reading of The Speckled Band reached its climax). Of course, if the book takes a hold on your imagination, you can remain vividly aware of the world that lies beyond the door and the memory can haunt you, in dreams and waking – I remember the same brother giving me an account of an adventure/horror story called (I think) Lonegan and the Ants, about an army of soldier ants eating everything in their path (including a man and a horse if I recall correctly). This so seized my mind that for a time I feared to pass the door of my sister’s room (vacant, as she was at university) lest a column of ants (originating, of course, from under the bed) should come streaming across the hallway.

Curiously, but importantly, I only ever allowed these imagined ants to stream across the hall into the bathroom; there was no question of their taking a right turn and coming down the hall to the bedroom I shared with my brothers. As long as I leapt or dashed past the door, I could make it to the living-room.  It may have been that I was impressed by the fact that the ants in the story relentlessly pursued a straight line – that was part of their menace – but I also think that I was exercising a measure of control: I could not keep the monsters out completely, but I could work out an accommodation with them.

And that, in short, is what good children’s books – and, perhaps, all stories – teach us to do: they allow us to come to an accommodation with the monsters, acknowledging their presence but giving us ways of dodging them – the first heroic act we learn, perhaps, is the dark dash across the cold linoleum from the lightswitch, culminating in a flying leap onto the bed to evade the clutches of the creatures that we know are underneath it, but are not allowed to transgress the bounds that have been set for them.

The Cartography of Childhood 2: a recanting

‘Blog in haste, repent at leisure.’ (old proverb, probably attributed to Albert Einstein/Dr Seuss/Abraham Lincoln)

When I said ‘the fantasy element in fantasy literature is the embodiment of the child’s expectations of the grown-up world’ I felt I had pinned down an idea that I have been moving towards for some time – years, in fact, though it has been in the forefront of my mind again these past two months. (Since reading Alan Garner’s Boneland, as it happens, a subject I shall deal with separately) However, now I come to explain it, I find it is not quite what I meant to say (a familiar feeling, I may add).

The gist of it was going to be this: a child’s world is like a mediaeval map, with a small known portion surrounded by vast spaces filled in from the imagination; hence, for children, the resonance of literature that is similarly structured, involving people they can identify with crossing from the security of their known world into a mysterious Beyond at once exciting and daunting.

The problem arises when we consider the nature of that Beyond – what the writer chooses to put in it, and why that, too, resonates with children. My original thought was this: what the writer generally puts into it is (first and foremost) something marvellous – it is a world of powerful and dangerous beings with remarkable powers, who are generally engaged in some sort of struggle, for a high and noble purpose, against an implacable (and wicked) foe. (Cf. Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Elidor, Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence, and of course Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings (though not, I think, The Hobbit, for reasons I will discuss elsewhere – for all its more overtly childish clothing, The Hobbit strikes me as being in many ways an adult book))

Now we come to the crucial point: the reason why such a vision of high and noble strife resonates with children, I was going to say, is because that is their expectation of what grown-up life must be like – something big and important, something grand, in a word. And I wanted that to be a rebuke to all those adults who would pile in at once, saying ‘but adult life isn’t like that! it is mean and petty and squalid and ignoble and dull, for the most part.’

And it was at this point that I realised that what I had said originally was not accurate: I had spoken of the ‘child’s expectations of the grown-up world’ when what I should have said (I think) is that the fantasy element in children’s literature offers them a vision of life – or, indeed, Life.

Here is where I think I was going wrong: the child’s expectation of the grown-up world is a fantasy formed from privation – the standard adult formula for thwarting children’s desires is ‘when you’re grown-up, you can do what you like, but for now you have to do what you’re told’ – so that the world of the grown-up is imagined as one where you don’t have to do what anyone tells you: you can wear your pyjamas all day, eat ice-cream for breakfast and never go to bed. (And I have to say that for many of us, this model remains alive in adulthood – look how we spend our leisure time).

On the other hand, a child’s expectation of Life is something quite different. For a start, the very word ‘expectation’ is wrong, and its wrongness goes to the heart of what we are talking about here. Life is, precisely, what you experience at every moment: living is what you do, what you cannot help doing; it is not a matter of expectation, of waiting for it to happen, it is now. Children, generally speaking – especially young children – are very good at living, just as birds and beasts are: it is a matter of instinct, not reflection; in that respect, they are better at it than most adults. The problems arise when it comes to living in a particular world, by which I mean not the one actual world that we all share but rather the myriad constructs that we have made to inhabit, which often overlap and have labels such as ‘the Western World’ ‘the modern world’ ‘European civilisation’ ‘the British way of life’ ‘middle-class-life’ ‘working-class-life’ ‘Scotland’ and so on. These are the worlds for which one must learn rules, conventions of behaviour, ways of speaking and thinking. (For instance, here in Scotland, with the impending independence referendum, we can expect much ink to be spilled on the subject of ‘what it means to be Scottish.’)

So now I feel the need to change my metaphor: it is not maps and map-making I want, it is the image of the book as a doorway (and its covers as doors, which they much resemble). Books are doors that open into other worlds, parallel universes, if you like. These worlds are imaginary, not just in the sense that they are ‘made up’ as opposed to ‘real’, but in the sense that they are products of the human imagination, which is always (whether it is conscious of it or not) engaging with the same material, namely Life itself.

[I have been careful to avoid saying ‘engaging with the same problem’ or referring to ‘the meaning of life’ because that is to take the viewpoint of the philosopher rather than the artist – though it is interesting to recall what one of the greatest philosophers has said on the matter:

‘The solution of the problem of life is seen in the vanishing of the problem.

(Is this not the reason why those who have found after a long period of doubt that the sense of life became clear to them have then been unable to say what constituted that sense?)’

(Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 6.521)]

I use the term ‘artist’ in its broadest sense, to include the painter, the musician, the writer, the poet – all who engage in that kind of activity which is neither a means to an end nor even an end in itself, because it cannot be analysed in those terms – it is at once the highest form of human activity (because it is the most characteristically human) and the most pointless (in the best sense, as it is not subordinated to any aim or goal, it is not even its own justification because it does not seek to justify itself).

( Another philosopher, Benedetto Croce, said that ‘art is intuition’ – and if we take intuition to mean, as the Chambers dictionary defines it, ‘the power of the mind by which it immediately perceives the truth of things without reasoning or analysis’ then I think that is not wide of the mark, though to be sure ‘the truth of things’ is still a phrase to trouble the mind.)

So (draws deep breath, returns to the original path) what the fantasy element of children’s literature offers is not, as I said before, ‘an embodiment of the child’s expectations of the grown-up world’ but rather a vision of Life couched in terms that the child can understand and engage with – it is, on the one hand, saying ‘think of it like this’ and on the other, stripping away the top layer to reveal the working mechanism underneath.

But this is a subject to which I will return.