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.

The Cartography of Childhood

The first house I remember clearly is the second I lived in, from when I was not yet three till shortly before my seventh birthday. It occupied the upper right-hand quarter of a council house that stood at one end of a pair of keyhole-shaped cul-de-sacs that faced one another across a main street. To the right, this street ran past the local shops and on into town; it led to the school where my brothers went and my father was headmaster (my sister was already away at university) and to the church where we went to mass. To the left it ran on some way till it was blocked by a church that I knew was ‘not ours’.

We never had occasion to go that way and I can still recall the sense of looking into foreign territory that came over me when I pedalled my red tricycle as far as the left-hand corner (the express limit of my going – I fell off there once and skinned my knee; a lady came to my assistance). There was no line to mark it, no border post, but I knew that what lay beyond was another place, beyond the limits of my known world. Anything might happen there.

I imagine many children have felt something similar. Our world when we are small is a very limited space, but intensely experienced. Even the home itself, our centre of operations, is not wholly known – there are places where we are not allowed without permission; doors that are closed against us; places – like the space underneath the bed- that acquire, at certain hours of day, a threatening aspect.

Our childhood world is like that of the mediaeval cartographers: so little of it is actually known, so much peopled from our private imaginings. We are constantly engaged in trying to map our world, sometimes from what we are told, as often from what we have worked out ourselves, often with hilarious results. (If you want to test this, try completing the sentence ‘I used to think that…’ I, for instance, used to think that moustaches were an extension of nostril-hair, a notion my drawings faithfully reflected, till a kindly brother set me right.)

Now, where similar structures exist, so does the potential for metaphor. (By structures I mean parts in a particular relation or arrangement) It should be no surprise to find that a great many children’s stories reflect the image of the child’s world that I have given above, with its small known territory bordering on a strange, unknown world that intrigues and daunts us equally. And the substance of these stories is what happens when that border is crossed, which as children we long and fear to do. (Because although that wider world is unknown to us, we know some who go there – it is the realm of those mysterious and powerful beings, Grown-ups.)

Thus Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood venture into the Big Dark Wood; Mole in the Wind in the Willows abandons Rat’s cosy fireside to investigate the Wild Wood; Bilbo leaves the safe confines of the Shire in search of dragon’s gold; the children in Elidor pass through the ruined church to another world beyond; Colin and Susan find another world under Alderley Edge, in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen; Will Stanton is initiated into the realm of the Old Ones in The Dark is Rising.

Fantasy literature is often misunderstood, generally by earnest people who have forgotten what it is like to be a child. We need to remind ourselves that the reality of a child’s world is that the greater part of it is unknown and mysterious, a place where anything might happen; and we need to remind ourselves also that a child’s expectations of what life is all about are not as jaded as ours may have become. We need to see that the general qualities of fantasy reflect exactly the child’s expectations of life, of the grown-up world where (as they are repeatedly told) ‘you’ll be able to do what you like’ – both are wonderful, amazing, terrifying, filled with marvels and magic, limitless in their possibilities. The fantasy element in fantasy literature is the embodiment of the child’s expectations of the grown-up world.

(However, on reflection, I do not think this is quite right – for more, see here)