Lewis Carroll wrote Alice for the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church. Edward Lear made up his Nonsense Songs and Stories for the children at Knowsley Hall where he was painting Lord Derby’s parrots. Beatrix Potter told the Tale of Peter Rabbit to entertain a five-year-old invalid. In collecting and publishing their Fairy Tales the brothers Grimm had a loftier end in view: the greater glory of Germany. Not that they didn’t care for children: Wilhelm was a doting father, Jacob an affectionate uncle; both had romantic views about the sacred innocence of childhood. But pleasing children with fairy tales was only a by-product of their great endeavor, which was nothing less than to recapture the whole German cultural heritage. Fairy tales were part of a grand design which also comprised folk tales, heroic tales, mythology, translations from Old German and Danish, German legal antiquities, and the monumental Grammar and Dictionary.
What a pair the brothers were! From childhood utterly devoted to each other and to the great project, living in the same house, working at two desks in the same study, talking less as they grew older and only needed to discuss the details of their work, absorbing a wife (Wilhelm’s, when he was thirty-nine) and children without impairing their profound harmony. They were in no way sheltered from the rough winds of history, as we learn from Murray Peppard’s enthusiastic biography. Clearly his book is a work of love, and full of interest, if now and then a bit heavy-handed (“Jacob, the lifelong bachelor, was not blind to the charms of women and he was an alert observer of the fair sex”).
As a young man Jacob earned his living as librarian to Jerome Bonaparte, then King of Hesse, and attended the Congress of Vienna in 1814 as secretary to the Hessian legation. In 1837, when both brothers were professors at Göttingen, they and five colleagues protested so effectively against the absolute rule of the new Elector of Hanover that they had to leave the state and, after difficult years, settled in Berlin. Yet for all the domestic and professional upheavals, the quarrels with other scholars, the publishing delays, the ever-present worries over health and money, the brothers were happy, as those are who have a vision and spend their lives in realizing it. I looked up W. P. Ker’s essay on Jacob Grimm: Ker sees their progress and conquests as
…a demonstration of the power of that great god Wish whom Jacob Grimm was first to name. The moral seems to be Fay ce que Voudras, when that counsel is rightly understood.
They collected fairy tales in Hesse and Westphalia in the same manner as Walter Scott, a few years earlier, had collected the ballads of the Scottish Border. Oral tradition was all-important, and they sought out grandmothers, shepherds, nurses, far-traveled soldiers, anyone who had the old tales firmly lodged in memory and could repeat them word for word. For all their patriotic motive they really wished the Fairy Tales, as Wilhelm wrote, “to be an educational book, since I know nothing that is more nourishing, more innocent and refreshing for childlike powers and nature.” They saw the tales as “the wonderful last echoes of ancient myths,” as
…the remnants of a faith which goes back to the most ancient times and which is expressed in the figurative conception of supersensual things…. The meaning of the mystical element is long since lost, but it is still felt and gives the fairy tales their content while at the same time satisfying the natural pleasure in the miraculous; they are never just the ornamental play of idle imagination.
Here comes Anne Sexton’s Transformations to ram this point home, with a bluntness and brutality that might well have startled the good brothers. Sixteen of their tales are served up in verse with a relish of Freud, and horrors far worse than the cruelties of retributive justice which the Grimms condoned. She introduces each retelling with a little homily, which stresses the tale’s present relevance:
Inside many of us
is a small old man
who wants to get out….
He is a monster of despair.
He is all decay.
This is the start of “Rumpelstiltskin”; “Cinderella” opens with
You always read about it:
the plumber with twelve children
who wins the Irish Sweepstakes.
From toilets to riches.
The tales are set out with new details—the bad fairy at the christening in “Sleeping Beauty” has
her eyes burnt by cigarettes,
her uterus an empty teacup—
and with many a tart comment: “Snow White, the dumb bunny.” Happy endings are mocked: Cinderella and the Prince live for ever after
like two dolls in a museum case
never bother by diapers or dust,
never arguing over the timing of an egg,
never telling the same story twice,
never getting a middle-aged spread,
their darling smiles pasted on for eternity.
Regular Bobbsey Twins.
Along the way some personal horrors are fished up, looked at, and we trust exorcised. I wouldn’t buy the book for a child, but I would much rather a child came across it than many a cute, crude, and gaudy horror of a fairy book. For a straight retelling, there is About Wise Men and Simpletons, a translation of eighteen tales from the German of the first Grimm edition: all very spare and matter-of-fact, as are the etchings by Nonny Hogorian.
The continuing power of myth to fertilize a tale is felt in two of the strongest of this year’s stories, the work of those artful old hands P. L. Travers and William Mayne. Friend Monkey, P. L. Travers tells us, “is the result of long brooding on the idea of Hanuman, the monkey lord of the Hindu myths, who could never do anything by halves.” This Monkey travels from his jungle to the Putney home of loving Mr. Linnet the shipping clerk. He helps everybody—to excess. He rushes to light the fire—using Uncle Trehunsey’s pension money to get a nice blaze. He charms pennies into the blind Italian organ-grinder’s bowl—then delightedly gives them away (which makes the organ-grinder give himself away—not blind and not Italian!). To rescue a cherished pet, the hymnsinging cockatoo, he upsets a procession of horses—and makes Queen Victoria late for her Jubilee and Mr. Linnet lose his job! So he can’t pay the rent—but here comes Monkey, offering Mrs. de Quincy Belmore’s diamond necklace in his helping paw.
He looked at Monkey with gratitude that was mixed with exasperation. One problem had indeed ripened, but with Monkey every ripened problem seemed to give birth to another. Would he never learn that enough was enough—even, perhaps, too much?
Suspense, surprise, peripeties, discoveries—P. L. Travers cunningly uses them all, to keep us wondering not so much what Monkey will do next, as how poor Mr. Linnet will cope—“a small man to whom too many things had happened all at once.” Because of Monkey he and his family are up in the air with bliss; because of Monkey he is at his wits’ end. When illumination comes—on an island in the South Atlantic which not everyone can see, after a breathtaking voyage with shady shipmates and a peculiar cargo—he understands that he looked on Monkey the wrong way round. Monkey never was Mr. Linnet’s charge, to cherish or worry over; Monkey belonged to no one but himself, and was there to be enjoyed—or put up with. To celebrate his freedom—from worry and from his old London life—Mr. Linnet throws away his city bowler and boots; with anxious loving care, Monkey brings them back. “Mr. Linnet sighed, not unhappily—too much was better than too little!—but simply accepting his fate.”
Through Monkey, Mr. Linnet’s way of looking at the world is changed. Changed too is Donald Jackson’s, the boy of A Game of Dark, through the life he leads when he steps from school and home into a country of legend: a land laid waste by a loathly worm, a castled city, a brave lord who asks Donald to be his squire. These excursions can happen anywhere—on a train, in a lesson, in front of the television set. Donald’s ordinary life is tense and earnest, with an invalid father, a joyless pious mother, the sad ghost of a dead sister whose picture he finds in a Bible. He is always being made to feel guilt and shame—when he goes off with the jolly vicar, disapproved of by his Methodist mother; when he has nothing to say to his father in the hospital; when he can’t even summon up the right feelings for his father:
After the revulsion came guilt and then a wild wordless frustration putting him beyond the power of thought. He was not ready, this morning, to look at the man in the bed, nor was he able to explain.
There is some guilt and shame in the world of dark, but there he has a part to play. When the young lord dies in combat with the huge worm, Donald takes his place. He is not very heroic, and runs away in his first fight. He has to use low cunning to succeed, laying an ambush for the creature in its lair of ice. But he has done a deed, and saved the city, and done it by himself: he is the new lord. Donald comes back to his father’s deathbed, able to understand and love.
Any summary must be clumsy: the tale itself slips from one world to another with ease and conviction. Here, acting on a solid and believable child, is the liberating power of dream and vision, leading him into, and not away from, reality.
Martha Bacon too shifts children in and out of time and space. Her Third Road is the one True Thomas took in the ballad: it leads three children on the back of a unicorn to the court of the King of Spain where they meet the Infanta, her dwarf companions, and her spaniel. Don Diego Velasquez, the spaniel explains, has painted them, and so they are outside of time. Further journeys astride the unicorn take them on the Camino Real of Spain overseas, and to Hy Breasil; but round the corner all the time is their grandmother’s house, on a beach in California. The two elements, now and then, the real food cooked by Granny and the magic plumed serpent snatched by a Spanish grandee, are held in one frame through the precise and pedantic voice of the narrator, twelve-year-old Berkeley Craven: “We are allowed wine at table with water in it. I don’t like the taste very much but the idea pleases me.” There are some nice word plays—“nothing but a fig-leaf of your imagination”—but the appeal of The Third Road is not limited to the sophisticated literary child, it is for all who know that their dreams are as “real” as their cornflakes.
Storybook children are now allowed to be unhappy, as they were in Victorian tales, though there may be less relish in presenting their gloom than is displayed by the authors of The Wide Wide World and Misunderstood. Kate, of Nina Bawden’s Squib, is given to sulks, withdrawals, and miseries—and with good reason, for her father and young brother were drowned while bathing, and she thinks it was her fault. The interest of the story to a grown-up reader is in the wholly believable resolution of Kate’s troubles through the care of an ill-treated waif; to a child, in the adventures that lead to the waif’s rescue. The story is solidly grounded in England—the plain England of council schools, old people’s homes, and gangs on motorbikes—and in a firm social morality. “It’s not our business, is it,” says Robin, Kate’s cautious ally, when they hear of the wretched child. “That’s what people always say when they don’t want to be bothered” is Kate’s passionate response.
Where Nina Bawden unobtrusively threads her moral through the action, Geoffrey Wagner flaunts his for all to see. Conservation is the code preached as strenuously in Innocent Grove as self-reliance and manliness were in Ballantyne and Henty—perhaps it is one of the few codes that can today find ready acceptance. No moral need spoil a good story—look at Coral Island—and there are some lively moments when Boy and his animal friends rescue a cougar from a private zoo (the setting is somewhere in the West). But plausibility fights a losing battle with didacticism. There is the same tone of kindly explanation that hovers over the Swiss Family Robinson, and the author is ever ready to pounce with an improving fact.
“That poor skunk,” said Boy, “was tearing apart the cow pie and mixing the dung up with the sand and scrub. It was doing the work of a fertilizer when it was killed. It was giving back both seed and nitrogen to the earth for a return of grass.”
The animals are equally pat with their comments:
“Actually,” said Kim [the cougar], “our kind slays mostly the old and ill members of roving herds. We aren’t the wanton killers of human legend, Boy.”
In her captivity Kim “knew in her heart that another link in nature’s chain was going, and that thereby man was destroying himself daily.” Alas for good intentions. I seem to hear a good deal of giggling and snorting down the innocent grove.
Dr. Seuss may be as likely to win converts to the same cause with his exemplary tale of The Lorax. The villain who despoiled the forest of Truffula Trees to manufacture Thneeds says he
meant no harm, I most truly did not
But I had to grow bigger. So bigger I got.
I biggered my factory. I biggered my roads.
I biggered my wagons. I biggered the loads.
The Lorax is relentless: “What do you do with this left-over goo?” Yet there is hope at the end: from the dead factory in the wasted land the villain drops one Truffula seed. The renewing of nature; the greening of Dr. Seuss.
Geoffrey Wagner could have taken a tip or two on plausibility and the unobtrusive imparting of information from Wallace Hildick, author of Children and Fiction. In this “critical study of the writing of fiction for and about children,” Mr. Hildick hands out plenty of good advice: how to catch a child’s attention from the first sentence, how cunningly to use detail, how to time the climaxes, how to present “rough” children without using too rough words, how to adapt a British book for an American market. His approach is practical: the children’s author is “the producer, the conscientious professional practitioner” (sounds more like Dr. Kildare than loopy old Edward Lear).
He is rightly down on those “instant pundits”—teachers, parents, publishers, and critics—who are quite certain they know all about children’s likes and dislikes; he can be pretty cocksure himself, but he does speak with years of experience of teaching and of writing books that have pleased a great many children. His study should stimulate many teachers to think more purposefully about the books they use in the classroom—from reading primers to Lord of the Flies—and the responses they get. But as a general critique of children’s books it is disappointing—going off in too many directions, and often scrappy on important issues: a discussion of social attitudes is too restricted to Enid Blyton.
“Louisa, never wonder,” said Mr. Gradgrind of Hard Times. In this command, said Dickens, “lay the spring of the mechanical art and mystery of educating the reason without stooping to the cultivation of the sentiments and affections.” Sentiments and affections are substantially nourished in some new picture books, full of wonderful happenings. William Pène du Bois assembles three lovable elements—koala bears, kangaroos, the circus. (It was the circus that put me in mind of Mr. Gradgrind, for he considered Louisa’s peeping at a circus as bad a crime as reading poetry.) In The Bear’s Circus, grasshoppers strip the koala bears’ gum-trees, kangaroos rescue bears (two to a pouch), a flying circus crashes on the bears’ new pad, the bears practice seven years to put on a show for their kangaroo pals—hey presto, grasshoppers are back, another rescue in kangaroo pouches, disaster averted by mutual help and merriment!
Tomi Ungerer’s The Beast of Monsieur Racine concerns a retired tax collector who strikes up a friendship with a strange creature that looks like a heap of moldy blankets with baggy knees and long socklike ears. Unknown to science! Wild bidding from circus owners and wealthy maniacs! A grand demonstration at the Academy! But then…. The scene is lovingly French, to the enamel coffee pot and the Mayor’s sash; and there are many little jokes in the pictures, one at the expense of Maurice Sendak, to whom the book is dedicated.
How the Mouse was Hit on the Head by a Stone and so Discovered the World is something of a curiosity (and not just for the length of its title). First the artist, Etienne Delessert, roughed out the story. Then, with the active help of Jean Piaget, a group of psychologists tested prose and pictures on twenty-three children between five and six, to ensure that all words and concepts were within their grasp, and to embody (in the form of the mouse’s questions to the sun and moon, etc.) the children’s own views of natural phenomena. The aim was to produce “a children’s book like any other, but if possible better than most because better adapted to its audience.” I found the pictures delightful—especially one of cats’ eyes in the dark—and the text a trifle dull. I remembered the sudden delight of children at meeting, in Beatrix Potter’s Flopsy Bunnies, the word that wasn’t in their vocabulary: “Lettuces are very soporific.”
I don’t think the makers of How, etc. would consider Donald Barthelme’s Slightly Irregular Fire Engine sufficiently “child-centered.” The basic idea is sophisticated, for the illustrations are all put together from nineteenth-century engravings and make free use of quaint typography. I think they succeed in their own right as funny pictures, and the tale of Matilda and the djinn who arranges her escapades has many an entertaining turn; but it’s rather what the brothers Grimm called “the ornamental play of idle imagination.” It might well soothe a Christmas-jaded parent.
For some straightforward and unsophisticated wonder I recommend Tooni the Elephant Boy—the story of the son of a ranger in a forest sanctuary in Assam, illustrated with outstandingly good photographs by Astrid Bergman Sucksdorff. You don’t feel that she’s twisted the reality of such a boy’s life—in his home, his school, in the jungle with his father—to suit the photographs: rather you marvel at her luck in being there when Tooni was climbing up the elephant, spotting a rhinoceros horn in the grass, or helping his father round up wild elephants.
Finally, a merry and—as things go—cheap little book. One Misty Moisty Morning is a collection of twenty nursery rhymes from Mother Goose, with intriguing pencil drawings by Martin Mitchell that lead the reader’s eye into mysterious places. Who are all the people at the window looking down on the Old Man Clothed all in Leather? Where is that road leading? Who is it spying on Tommy Tittle-mouse catching fishes in other men’s ditches?
Hokey, pokey, whisky, thum,
How d’you like potatoes done?
Boiled in whisky, boiled in rum,
Says the King of the Cannibal Islands
—what is really cooking in that generously bellied pot? It is a surprise, suddenly to discover between “I saw a ship a sailing” and “Ride away, ride away, Johnny shall ride,” the lines:
If a man who turnips cries,
Cry not when his father dies,
It is proof that he would rather
Have a turnip than his father—
for these are (more or less) Samuel Johnson’s burlesque of Lopez de Vega, reported by Mrs. Piozzi in her Anecdotes. When did they slip into the authorless company of nursery rhymes? How comical to think of the Great Cham of Literature anonymously embedded in the bosom of Mother Goose!
December 2, 1971