Stepping over the threshold

Begin at the crossroad.

Returning to the theme of "books on books" (begun in a previous post), here's another passage from The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford:

"My favorite books were the ones that took books' implicit status as other worlds, and acted on it literally, making the window of writing a window into imaginary countries. I didn't just want to see in books what I saw anyway in the world around me, even if it was perceived and understood and articulated from angles I could never have achieved; I wanted to see things I never saw in life. More than I wanted books to do anything else, I wanted them to take me away. I wanted exodus. I was not alone. Tolkien believed that providing an alternative to reality was one of the primary properties of language. From the moment humans had invented the adjective, he wrote in On Fairy Stories, they had gained a creator-like power to build elsewheres.

    " 'The mind that thought of light, heavy, grey, yellow, still, swift, also conceived of magic that would make heavy things light and able to fly, turn grey lead into yellow gold, and the still rock into swift water. If it could do the one, it could do the other; it inevitably did both. When we can take green from grass, blue from heaven, and red from blood, we have already an enchanter's power -- upon one plane; and the desire to wield that power in the world external to our minds awakes.'

"Anyone, he said, could use 'the fantastic device of human language' to mint a new coin for the imagination, such as the green sun. The green sun had no value, though, unless it was given a sky to rise in where it would have the same natural authority as the real yellow sun in the real sky. And after the sky, you had to invent the earth; and after the earth, the trees with their times of flowering and fruiting, and the inhabitants, and their habits of thought, and their manners of speech, their customs and clothing, down to the smallest details that labor and thought could contrive. To sustain a world inside which the green sun was credible required 'a kind of elvish craft ... story-making in its primary and most potent mode.'

Go over the stile,

"In fact Tolkien wanted to believe that fantasy was the highest form of art, more demanding than the mere reflection of men and women as they already were. He wanted to be able to look outward to story, and have it contain all that you might look inward to find, then more besides.

along the stone wall,

"But I knew there was a fundamental division between stories set entirely in another world, and stories that traveled out to another world from the everyday reality of this one. Some books I loved were in the first category. Tolkien himself, of course: the year I turned eight, I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time. [...] Later I discovered and cherished Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels. They were utterly different in feeling, with their archipelago of bright islands like ideal Hebrides, and their guardian wizards balancing light and dark like yin and yang. All they shared with Tolkien was the deep consistency that allows an imagined world to unfold from its premises solidly, step by certain step, like something that might really exist."

into the woods,

Yet the books that Spufford loved best were in the second category:

"...the ones that started in this world and took you to another. Earthsea and Middle Earth were separate. You traveled them in imagination as you read Le Guin and Tolkien, but they had no location in relation to this world. Their richness did not call you at home in any way. It did not lie just beyond a threshold in this world that you might find if you were particularly lucky, or particularly blessed.

"I wanted there to be the chance to pass through a portal, and by doing so pass from rusty reality with its scaffolding of facts and events into the freedom of story. If, in a story, you found that one panel in the fabric of the workaday world that was hinged, and it opened, and it turned out that behind the walls of the world flashed the gold and peacock blue of something else, and you were able to pass through, that would be a moment in which all the decisions that had been taken in this world, and all the choices that had been made, and all the facts that had been settled, would be up for grabs again: all possibilities would be renewed, for who knew what lay on the other side?

and through the old woodland gate.

"And once opened, the door would never be entirely shut behind you either. A kind of mixture would begin. A tincture of this world's reality would enter the other world, as the ordinary children in the story -- my representatives, my ambassadors -- wore their shirts and sweaters amid cloth of gold, and said Crumbs! and Come off it! among people speaking the high language of fantasy; while this world would be subtly altered too, changed in status by the knowledge that it had an outside. E. Nesbit invented the mixing of the worlds in The Amulet, which I preferred, along with the rest of her magical series, to the purely realistic comedy of the Bastables' adventures in The Treasure Seekers and its sequels. On a grey day in London, Robert and Anthea and Jane and Hugh travel to blue sky through the arch of the charm. The latest master of worlds is Philip Pullman. Lyra Belacqua and her daemon walk through the aurora borealis in the first book of the Dark Materials trilogy; in the next, a window in the air floats by a bypass in the Oxford suburbs; in the third installment, access to the eternal sadness of the land of the dead is through a clapped-out, rubbish-strewn port town on the edge of a dark lake.

Then cross running water, once,

"As I read I passed to other worlds through every kind of door, and every kind of halfway space that could work metaphorically as a threshold too: the curtain of smoke hanging over burning stubble in an August cornfield, an abandoned church in a Manchester slum. After a while, I developed a taste for transitions to subtle that the characters could not say at what instance the shift had happened.

twice,

"In Diana Wynne Jones's Eight Days of Luke, the white Rolls-Royce belonging to 'Mr. Wedding' -- Woden -- takes the eleven-year-old David to Valhalla for lunch, over a beautiful but very ordinary-seeming Rainbow Bridge that seems to be connected to the West Midlands road system. I liked the idea that borders between the worlds could be vested in modern stuff: that the green and white signs on the motorways counting down the miles to London could suddenly show the distance to Gramarye or Logres.

three times,

"But my deepest loyalty was unwavering," Spufford states. "The books I loved best all took me away through a wardrobe, and a shallow pool in the grass of a sleepy orchard, and a picture in a frame, and a door in a garden wall on a rainy day at boarding school, and always to Narnia. Other imaginary countries interested me, beguiled me, made rich suggestions to me. Narnia made me feel like I'd taken hold of a live wire. The book in my hand sent jolts and shimmers through my nerves. It affected me bodily. In Narnia, C.S. Lewis invented objects for my longing, gave form to my longing, that I would never have thought of, and yet they seemed exactly right: he had anticipated what would delight me with an almost unearthly intimacy. Immediately I discovered them, they became the inevitable expressions of my longing. So from the moment I first encountered The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to when I was eleven or twelve, the seven Chronicles of Narnia represented essence-of-book to me. They were the Platonic Book of which other books were more or less imperfect shadows. For four or five years, I essentially read other books because I could not always be re-reading the Narnia books."

to the Secret Path

to the Secret Place.

The American writer Lev Grossman was also ensorcelled by Narnia as a boy. In a fine essay on the subject he writes:

"The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe is a powerful illustration of why fantasy matters in the first place. Yes, the Narnia books are works of Christian apology, works that celebrate joy and love -- but what I was conscious of as a little boy, if not in any analytical way, was the deep grief encoded in the books. Particularly in the initial wardrobe passage. There’s a sense of anger and grief and despair that causes Lewis to want to discard the entire war, set it aside in the favor of something better. You can feel him telling you -- I know it’s awful, truly terrible, but that’s not all there is. There’s another option. Lucy, as she enters the wardrobe, takes the other option. I remember feeling this way as a child, too. I remember thinking, 'Yes, of course there is. Of course this isn’t all there is. There must be something else.'

"How powerful it was to have Lewis come along and say, Yes, I feel that way, too.

But don't stay too long, or you'll never return.

Don't eat the food. Don't drink the wine.

"But I bristle whenever fantasy is characterized as escapism. It’s not a very accurate way to describe it; in fact, I think fantasy is a powerful tool for coming to an understanding of oneself. The magic trick here, the sleight of hand, is that when you pass through the portal, you re-encounter in the fantasy world the problems you thought you left behind in the real world. Edmund doesn’t solve any of his grievances or personality disorders by going through the wardrobe. If anything, they're exacerbated and brought to a crisis by his experiences in Narnia. When you go to Narnia, your worries come with you. Narnia just becomes the place where you work them out and try to resolve them.

Come back over the river.

"The whole modernist-realist tradition is about the self observing the world around you -- sensing how other it is, how alien it is, how different it is to what’s going on inside you. In fantasy, that gets turned inside out. The landscape you inhabit is a mirror of what’s inside you. The stuff inside can get out, and walk around, and take the form of places and people and things and magic. And once it’s outside, then you can get at it. You can wrestle it, make friends with it, kill it, seduce it. Fantasy takes all those things from deep inside and puts them where you can see them, and then deal with them."

through the woods, and out again

In Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading, Lucy Mangan reflects on the fourth book in the series, Prince Caspian:

"The Pevensies return to the magical kingdom to find that hundreds of years have passed, civil war is dividing the kingdom and Old Narnians (many dwarves, centaurs, talking animals, the dryads and hamadryads that once animated the trees, and other creatures) are in hiding. The children must lead the rebels against their Telmarine conquerors. The warp and weft of Narnian life is seen up close, in even more gorgeously imagined detail than the previous books. Lucy, awake one night in the thick of the forest that has grown up since she was last in Narnia, feels the trees are almost awake and that if she just knew the right thing to say they would come to Narnian life once more.

"It mirrored exactly how I felt about reading, and about reading Lewis in particular. I was so close...if I could just read the words on the page one more time, I could animate them too. The flimsy barriers of time, space and immateriality would finally fall and Narnia would spring up all around me and I would be there, at last."

Come back home where we're waiting for you  my dear.

Come back safe.

Come and tell us the story.

Words: The passages above are from The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford (Henry Holt & Co, 2002); "Confronting Reality by Reading Fantasy" by Lev Grossman (The Atlantic, August 2014); and Bookworm: A Memoir of Childhood Reading by Lucy Mangan (Penguin, 2018); all rights reserved by the authors.  Pictures: The journey there and back again. Related posts: "Secret Threads," "Children, Reading, and Tough Magic", and "Ursula Le Guin on the Truth of Fantasy."


Books on books

The Bed-Time Book by Jessie Willcox Smith

My own bed-time reading

Having spent the better part of the last couple of months in and out of bed again has been a bit of a blow for my writing schedule (the manuscript I thought would be done by now is still inching its way to the finish line), and my studio hours are still limited as I find my way back to health and strength. But when illness robs us of productivity, breaking down our usual routines, slowing time down to a crawl, it also gives us unexpected gifts -- and for me, that gift is the time read.  Okay, I'd rather be writing, painting, doing, not watching the world through a fever haze, or experiencing life through a printed page -- but on those days when my body fails I'm grateful to books, and to all those who write them.

Olvaso No by Berény Róbert

Reading having played a big part in my life for many reasons in addition to health, I have a particular fondness for books about books. Here are three I've read (or re-read) recently: The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford, Bookworm by Lucy Mangan, and Books & Island in Ojibwe Country by Louise Erdrich. All three are memoirs, rather than literary studies; all three explore the author' s personal relationship with books; all three examine the ways that stories form us, effect us, and define us.

Books on books

Let's start with The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford. (I'll discuss the other two in future posts.)

I first read Spufford's book in 2002, the year of its publication, and what struck me then was the unusual nature of its composition: childhood memoir mixed with literary history, cognitive science and child psychology in relation to story. In the intervening years, writers of memoir have expanded the form in so many ways that the premise of the book has lost its radical edge; I find that I have to remind myself that Spufford's memoir was a pioneering text, with both the strengths and flaws of form that trail-blazing entails. That said, it is still a very good read. Spufford is roughly the same generation I am (unlike Lucy Mangan) and grew up with many of the same children's books on his shelves. He also has a taste for fantasy (Mangan largely does not), and discusses the genre with knowledge and love. Although his writing on fairy tales relies too much on the disputed psychoanalytic theories of Bruno Bettleheim, his passion for all things magical wins me over nonethless, along with his poignant exploration of a childhood in which finding doors into other worlds was merciful and necessary.

Here's a passage from Spufford's introduction  to give you a sense of the book as a whole:

When I Grow Up by Jim Daly"I began my reading in a kind of hopeful springtime for children's writing. I was born in 1964, so I grew up in a golden age comparable to the present heyday of J.K. Rowling and Philip Pullman, or to the great Edwardian decade when E. Nesbit, Kipling, and Kenneth Graham were all publishing at once. An equally amazing generation of talent was at work as the 1960s ended and the 1970s began. William Mayne was making dialogue sing; Peter Dickinson was writing the Changes trilogy; Alan Garner was reintroducting myth into the bloodstream of daily life; Jill Paton Walsh was showing that children's perceptions could be just as angular and uncompromising as adults; Joan Aiken had begun her Dido Twite series of comic fantasies; Penelope Farmer was being unearthly with Charlotte Sometimes; Diana Wynne Jones's gift for wild invention was hitting its stride; Rosemary Sutcliffe was just adding the final uprights to her colonnade of Romano-British historical novels; Leon Garfield was reinventing the 18th century as a scene for inky Gothic intrigue. The list went on, and on, and on. There was activity everywhere, a new potential classic every few months.

Boy Reading by Carl Larsson

Instead of Sleep by Tatiana Deriy

"Unifying this lucky concurrence of good books, and making them seem for a while like contributions to a single intelligible project, was a kind of temporary cultural consensus: a consensus both about what children were and about where we all were in history. Dr. Spock's great manual for liberal, middle-class child-rearing had come out at the beginning of the Sixties, and had helped deconstruct the last lingering remnants of the idea that a child was clay to be molded by a benevolent adult authority. The new orthodoxy took it for granted that a child was a resourceful individual, neither ickily good nor reeking of original sin. And the wider world was seen as a place in which a permanent step forward toward enlightenment had taken place as well. The books my generation were offered took it for granted that poverty, disease and prejudice essential belonged in the past. Postward society had ended them. 

"As the 1970s went on, these assumptions would lose their credibility. Gender roles were about to be shaken up; the voices that a white, liberal consensus consigned to the margins of consciousness were about to be asserted as hostile witnesses to its nature. People were about to lose their certainty that liberal solutions worked. Evil would revert to being an unsolved problem. But it hadn't happened yet; and till it did, the collective gaze of children's stories swept confidently across past and future, and across all international varieties of the progressive, orange-juice-drinking present, from Australia to Sweden, from Holland to the broad, clean suburbs of America.

Children reading by Honor C Appleton & Mary Cicely Barker

Children's Classics by Holly Farrell

Felcia by Henry Lamb and Girl Reading by Edward Thompson Davis

Puffin editions

"For me, walking up the road aged seven or eight to spend my money on a paperback, the outward sign of this unity was Puffin Books. In Britain, almost everything written for children passed into the one paperback imprint. On the shelves of the children's section in the bookshop, practically all the stock would be identically neat soft-covered octavos, in different colors, with different cover art, but always with the same sans serif type on the spine, and the same little logo of an upstanding puffin. Everything cost about the same. For 17p -- then 25p and then 40p as the 1970s inflation took hold -- you could have any one of the new books, or any of the children's classics, from the old ones like The Wind in the Willows or Alice to the new ones that were only a couple of decades into their classichood, like the Narnia books (C.S. Lewis had died the year before I was born, most unfairly making sure I would never meet him).

"If you were a reading child in the UK in the Sixties or Seventies, you too probably remember how securely Puffins seemed, with the long, trust-worthy descriptions of the story inside the front cover, always written by the same arbiter, the Puffin editor Kaye Webb, and their astonishingly precise recommendation to 'girls of eleven and above, and sensitive boys.'  It was as if Puffin were part of the administration of the world. They were the department of the welfare state responsible for the distribution of narrative. And their reach seemed universal: not just the really good books you were going to remember forever, but the nearly good ones too and the completely forgettable ones that at the time formed the wings of reading and spread them wide enough to enfold you in books on all sides."

Reading by James Charles and Storytime by Jonathan Weiss

The Reading Boy by Joseph Fielding Smith

A little later in the Introduction, Spufford lays out the premise of his memoir:

"I have gone back and read again the sequence of books that carried me from babyhood to the age of nineteen, from the first fragmentary stories I remember to the science fiction I was reading at the brink of adulthood. As I reread them, I tried to become again the reader I had been when I encountered each for the first time, wanting to know how my particular history, in my particular family, at that particular time, had ended up making me into the reader I am today. I made forays into child psychology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis, where I thought those things might tease out the implications of memory. With their help, the following chapters recount a path through the riches that were available to English children of the 1960s and 1970s, and onward into the reading of adolescence. It is the story (I hope) of the reading my whole generation of bookworms did; and it is the story of my own relationship with books; both. A pattern emerged, or a I drew it: a set of four stages in the development of that space inside where writing is welcomed and reading happens. What follows is more about books that it is about me, but nonetheless it is my inward autobiography, for the words we take into ourselves help to shape us. "

It is a premise Spufford amply fulfills.

The Child That Books Built by Francis Spufford

A Book at Bedtime by Emma Irlam Briggs

Words: The passage above is from The Child That Books Built: A Life in Reading by Francis Spufford (Henry Holt & Co, 2002); all rights reserved by the author. Pictures: The art is identified in the picture captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see them.) Related Reading: Previous posts that discuss The Child That Books Built include "In the Forest of Stories" (2013) and  "Built by Books" (2014).


Why we need fantasy

From Billy Popgun  illustrated by Milo Winter


The following passage by Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) comes from an essay published in The Horn Book fifty years ago, yet I'm struck by how relevant it still seems to be today:

"Anyone close to children -- librarians, teachers, maybe even parents -- knows they do not hesitate to come out with straightforward questions. I am beginning to learn this for myself, although the process has been a little backwards: Instead of getting to know children first, then writing books for them, the opposite is happening. It is only recently  I have had some happy occasions to meet real live children. And not only in schools and libraries. At home I often discover a few hanging around the kitchen or perched on the sofa, swinging their heels. We talk awhile, they tell me what a hard day they had, I tell them what a hard day I have had -- there's really not much difference. But they constantly surprise me. The other afternoon one little girl asked, 'What would you rather do: be a millionaire or write books for children?'

"I gave her an absolutely honest answer. I said I would rather write books for children.

From Through the Looking Glass illustrated by Milo Winter

"Of course, I added, if someone felt inclined to give me a million dollars tax-free, in all politeness I could not refuse.

"But my answer was truthful. And I believe any serious, creative person -- and this includes teachers and librarians, for I have learned how really creative they are -- would have said the same. Because -- despite our status-oriented society, our preoccupation with 'making it,' with staying young forever, buying safe deodorants and unsafe automobiles -- I think something new is happening.

"Whatever our individual opinions, I think each of us senses that as a people we are in the midst of a moral crisis -- certainly the deepest of our generation, perhaps of our history. Few of us are untouched by a kind of national anguish. And it hurts. But if we felt nothing, if nothing moved or troubled us, then I feel we would be truly lost. For isn't anguish part of growing up? Without knowing grief, how can we ever hope to know joy?

From Aesop's Fables  illustrated by Milo Winter

"In the past, we have always been able to find technical or technological solutions to our problems. They have been external problems, for the most part, yielding to external solutions. And so we are not quite used to problems demanding inner solutions. In an article on fantasy literature, Dorothy Broderick points out that the English have dealt with fantasy more comfortably than we have in America and comments that perhaps, since England is so much older a nation, the English have had time to ask Why? instead of only How?

"It is true that we haven't had long years of leisurely speculation. But, ready or not, the time for us is now. A dozen Whys have been put to us harshly and abruptly. And searching for the Why of things is leading us to see the purely technological answers are not enough.

"We have machines to think for us; we have no machines to suffer or rejoice for us. Technology has not made us magician, only sorcerer's apprentices. We can push a button and light a dozen cities. We can also push a button and make a dozen cities vanish. There is, unfortunately, no button we can push to relieve us of moral choices or give us the wisdom to understand the morality as well as the choices. We have seen dazzling changes and improvements in the world outside us. I am not sure they alone can help change and improve the world inside us.

From Nights With Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

"We are beginning to understand that intangibles have more specific gravity than we suspected, that ideas can generate as much forward thrust as Atlas missiles. We may win a victory in exploring the infinities of outer space, but it will be a Pyrrhic victory unless we can also explore the infinities of our inner spirit. We have super-sensitive thermographs to show us the slightest variations in skin temperature. No devices can teach us the irrelevance of skin color. We can transplant a heart from one person to another in a brilliant feat of surgical virtuosity. Now we are ready to try it the hard way: transplanting understanding, compassion and love from one person to another.

From Nights with Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

"To me, one of the clearest reflections of this changing attitude is a growing appreciation of fantasy in children's literature. The climate for fantasy today is vastly different from what it was twenty, even ten years ago, when the tendency was to judge fantasy as a kind of lollipop after the wholesome spinach of reality -- a tasty dessert, but not very good for the teeth.

"Now I think we see fantasy as an essential part of a balanced diet, not only for children but for adults too. The risks of keeping fantasy off the literary menu are every bit as serious as missing the minimum daily requirements of thiamine, niacin, and riboflavin. The consequences are spiritual malnutrition."

Five decades on, these words are still true. We still need fantasy. We still need folk tales, fairy tales, mythic fiction, magic realism and other forms of fantastical literature to help us "explore the infinities of our inner spirit," and re-imagine the world.

From The Wonder Garden illustrated by Milo Winter

The art today is by American illustrator Milo Winter (1888-1956).

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, he trained at The School of the Arts Institute in Chicago, and illustrated his first children's book (Billy Popgun) at the age of 24. He lived in Chicago until the 1950s, and in New York City thereafter, illustrating a wide range of books for both children and adults -- including Gulliver’s Travels, Tanglewood Tales, Arabian Nights, Alice in Wonderland, Twenty Thousand Leagures Under the Sea, The Three Muskateers, Treasure Island, A Christmas Carol Aesops for Children, and  Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales.

To see more of his work, go here.

From Nights with Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

From Nights With Uncle Remus illustrated by Milo Winter

The passage above is from "Wishful Thinking - Or Hopeful Dreaming?"  by Lloyd Alexander (The Horn Book, August 1968). All rights reserved by the author's estate.


Wild Children

The Miracle of Tears by Sulamith Wulfing

Today I'm on the trail of the Wild Children of myth, lore, and fantasy: children lost in the forest, abandoned, stolen, reared by wild animals, and those for whom wilderness is their natural element and home.

Tales of babies left in the woods (and other forms of wilderness) can found in the myths, legends, and sacred texts of cultures all around the globe.  The infant is usually of noble birth, abandoned and left to certain death in order to thwart a prophesy -- but Moses in the Bulrushes, artist unknownfate intervenes, the child survives and is raised by wild animals, or by humans who live on the margins of the wild: shepherds, woodsmen, gamekeepers, and the like. When the child grows up, his or her true identity is revealed and the prophesy is fulfilled. In Persian legends surrounding Cyrus the Great, for example, it is prophesized at his birth that he will grow up to take the crown of his grandfather, the King of Media. The king orders the baby killed and Cyrus is left on a wild mountainside, where he's rescued either by the royal herdsman or a bandit (depending on the version of the tale) and raised in safety. He grows up, learns his true parentage, and not only captures the Median throne but goes on to conquer most of central and southeast Asia.

Canopy  Variation of Remus & Romulus by Adrian Arleo

In Assyrian myth, a fish-goddess falls in love with a beautiful young man, gives birth to a half-mortal daughter, abandons the child in the wilderness, and then kills herself in shame. The baby is fed by doves and survives to be found and raised by a royal shepherd...and grows up to become Semiramis, the great Warrior Queen of Assyria. In Greek myth, Paris, the son of King Priam, is born under a prophesy that he will one day cause the downfall of Troy. The baby is left on the side of Mount Ida, but he's suckled by a bear and manages to live -- growing up to fall in love with Helen of Troy and spark the Trojan War.

Remus and Romulus, an Ertruscan bronze displayed at the Musei Capitolini in Rome

From Roman myth comes one of the most famous babes-in-the-wood stories of all, the legend of Remus and Romulus. Numitor, the good King of Alba Long, is overthrown by Amulius, his wicked brother, and his daughter is forced to become a Vestal Virgin in order to end his line. Though locked in a temple, the girl becomes pregnant (with the help of Mars, the god of war) and gives birth to a beautiful pair of sons: Remus and Romulus. Amulius has the twins exposed on the banks of the Tiber, expecting them to perish; instead, Wolf Mama by Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997)they are suckled and fed by a wolf and a woodpecker, and survive in the woods. Adopted by a shepherd and his wife, they grow up into noble, courageous young men and discover their true heritage — whereupon they overthrow their great-uncle, restore their grandfather to his throne, and, just for good measure, go on to found the city of Rome.

In Savage Girls and Wild Boys: A History of Feral Children, Michael Newton delves into the mythic symbolism inherent in the moment when abandoned children are saved by birds or animals. "Restorations and substitutions are at the very heart of the Romulus and Remus story," he writes; "brothers take the rightful place of others, foster parents bring up other people's children, the god Mars stands in for a human suitor. Yet the crucial substitution occurs when the she-wolf saves the lost children. In that moment, when the infants' lips close upon the she-wolf's teats, a transgressive mercy removes the harmful influence of a murderous culture. The moment is a second birth: where death is expected, succor is given, and the children are miraculously born into the order of nature. Nature's mercy admonishes humanity's unnatural cruelty: only a miracle of kindness can restore the imbalance created by human iniquity."

Starchild by Susan Seddon Boulet (1941-1997)

In myth, when we're presented with children orphaned, abandoned, or raised by animals, it's generally a sign that their true parentage is a remarkable one and they'll grow up to be great leaders, warriors, seers, magicians, or shamans. As they grow, their beauty, or physical prowess or magical abilities betray a lineage that cannot be hidden by their humble upbringing. (Rarely do we encounter a mythic hero whose origins are truly low; at least one parent must be revealed as noble, supernatural, or divine.) After a birth trauma and a miraculous survival always comes a span of time symbolically described as "exile in the wilderness," where they hone their skills, test their mettle, and gather their armies, their allies, or their magic, before returning (as they always do) to the world that is their birthright.

Little Red Cap by Lisbeth ZwergerWhen we turn to folk tales and fairy tales, however, although we also find stories of children abandoned in the wild or befriended by animals, the tone and intent of such tales is markedly different. Here, we're not concerned with the affairs of the gods or with heroes who conquer continents -- for folk tales in the Western tradition, unlike myths and hero epics, were passed through the centuries primarily by storytellers of lower classes (usually women), and tended to be focused on themes more relevant to ordinary people. Abandoned children in fairy tales (like Hansel and Gretel, Little Thumbling, or the broommaker's twins in The Two Brothers) aren't destined for greatness or infamy; they are exactly what they appear to be: the children of cruel or feckless parents. Such parents exist, they have always existed, and fairy tales  did not gloss over these dark facts of life. Indeed, they confronted them squarely. The heroism of such children lies not in the recovery of a noble lineage but in the ability to survive and transform their fate -- and to outwit those who would do them harm without losing their lives, their souls, or their humanity in the process.

Hansel & Gretel by Lisbeth Zwerger

Thumbelina by Lizbeth Zwerger

Children also journey to the forest of their own accord, but usually in response to the actions of adults: they enter the woods at a parent's behest (Little Red Riding Hood), or because they're not truly wanted at home (Hans My Hedgehog), or in order to flee a wicked parent, step-parent, or guardian (Seven Swans, Snow White and Brother & Sister). Disruption of a safe, secure home life often comes in the form a parent's remarriage: the child's mother has died and a heartless, jealous step-mother has taken her place. The evil step-mother is so common in fairy tales that she has become an iconic figure (to the bane of real step-mothers everywhere), and her history in the fairy tale canon is an interesting one. In some tales, she didn't originally exist. The murderous queen of  Snow White, for example, was the girl's own mother in the oldest versions of the story (the Brothers Grimm changed her into a step-parent in the 19th century) -- whereas other stories, such as Cinderella and The Juniper Tree, have featured second wives since their earliest known tellings.

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman (1939-2004)Some scholars who view fairy tales in psychological terms (most notably Bruno Bettelheim in The Uses of Enchantment) believe that the "good mother" and "bad step-mother" symbolize two sides of a child's own mother: the part they love and the part they hate. Casting the "bad mother" as a separate figure, they say, allows the child to more safely identify such socially unacceptable feelings. While this may be true, it ignores the fact that fairy tales were not originally stories specially intended for children. And, as Marina Warner points out (in From the Beast to the Blonde), this "leeches the history out of fairy tales. Fairy or wonder tales, however farfetched the incidents they include, or fantastic the enchantments they concoct, take on the color of the actual circumstance in which they were or are told. While certain structural elements remain, variant versions of the same story often reveal the particular conditions of the society in which it is told and retold in this form. The absent mother can be read as literally that: a feature of the family before our modern era, when death in childbirth was the most common cause of female mortality, and surviving orphans would find themselves brought up by their mother's successor."

Snow White by Trina Schart Hyman

We rarely find step-fathers in fairy tales, wicked or otherwise, but the fathers themselves can be treacherous. In stories like Donkeyskin, Allerleirauh, and The Handless Maiden, for example, it is a cowardly, cruel, or incestuous father who forces his daughter to flee to the wild. Even those fathers portrayed more sympathetically as the dupes of their black-hearted wives are still somewhat suspect: they are happy at the story's end to have their Peau d'âne (Donkeyskin) by Anneclaire Macéchildren return unscathed, but are curiously powerless or unwilling to protect them in the first place. Though the father is largely absent from tales such as Cinderella, The Seven Swans, and Snow White, the shadow he casts over them is a large one. He is, as Angela Carter has pointed out,  "the unmoved mover, the unseen organizing principle. Without the absent father there would have been no story because there would have been no conflict."

Family upheaval has another function in these tales, beyond reflecting real issues encountered in life: it propels young heroes out of their homes, away from all that is safe and familiar; it forces them onto the unknown road to the dark of the forest. It's a road that will lead, after certain tests and trials, to personal and worldly transformation, pushing the hero past childhood and pointing the way to a re-balanced life -- symbolized by new prosperity, or a family home that has been restored, or (for older youths) a wedding feast at the end of the tale. These young people are "wild" only for a time: it's a liminal state, a rite-of-passage that moves the hero from one distinct phase of life to another. The forest, with all its wonders and terrors, is not the final destination. It is a place to hide, to be tested, to mature. To grow in strength, wisdom, and/or power. And to gain the tools needed to return to the human world and repair what's been broken...or build anew.

Three Black Dogs by Kelly Louise Judd

Tiger Girls by Fay Ku

In one set of folk tales, however, children who disappear into the woods do not often return: the changeling stories of babies stolen by faeries and goblins, who generally leave a substitute behind: a wizened faery or a stick of wood, enchanted to look like the missing child but sickly and odd in its ways. Why, we might ask, are the denizens of Faerie so interested in stealing the offspring of mortals? Some faery lore suggests that the children are destined for lives as servants or slaves of the Faerie court; or that they are kept, in the manner of pets, for the amusement of their faery masters. Other stories and ballads (Tam Lin, for example) speak of a darker purpose: that the faeries must pay a tithe of blood to the Devil every seven years, and prefer to pay with mortal blood rather than blood of their own. In other traditions, however, it's simply the beauty of the children that attracts the faeries, who are also known to kidnap pretty young men and women, artists, poets, and musicians.

Stolen by Goblins by Maurice Sendak

The ability of faeries to procreate is a debatable issue in faery lore. Some stories maintain that the faeries do procreate, though not as often as humans. By occasionally interbreeding with mortals and claiming mortal babes as their own, they bring new blood into the Faerie Realm and keep their  bloodlines strong. Other tales suggest that they cannot breed, or do so with such rarity that jealousy of human fertility is the motive behind child-theft.

Some stolen children, the tales tell us, will spend their whole lives in the Faerie Realm, and may even find happiness there, losing all desire for the lands of men. Other tales tell us that human children cannot thrive in the otherworld, and eventually sicken and die for want of mortal food and drink. Some faeries maintain their interest in child captives only during their infancy, tossing the children out of the Faerie Realm when they show signs of age. Such children, restored to the human world, are not always happy among their own kind, and spend their mortal lives pining for a way to return to Faerie.

The Changeling by Arthur Rackham

Another type of story that comes from the deep, dark forest is the Feral Child tale, found in the shadow realm that lies between legend and fact.  There have been a number of cases throughout history of young children discovered living in the wild, a few of which have been documented to a greater or lesser degree. Generally, these seem to be children who have been abandoned or fled abusive homes, often at such a young age that they've ceased to remember any other way of life. Attempts to "civilize" these children, to teach them language, and to curb their animal-like behaviors, are rarely entirely successful -- which leads to all sorts of questions about what it is that shapes human culturalization as we know it.

Wolf Girl by Anna Siems

One of the most famous of these children was Victor, the Wild Boy of Avignon, discovered on a mountainside in France in the early 19th century. His teacher, Jean-Marc Gaspard Itard, wrote an extraordinary account of his six years with the boy -- a document which inspired François Truffaut's film The Wild Child, and Mordicai Gerstein's wonderful novel The Wild Boy. In an essay for The Horn Book, Gerstein wrote: "Itard's reports not only provide the best documentation we have of a feral child, but also one of the most thoughtful, beautifully written, and moving accounts of a teacher pupil relationship, which has as its object nothing less than learning to be a human being (or at least what Itard, as a man of his time, thought a human being to be).... Itard's ambition to have Victor speak ultimately failed, but even if he had succeeded, he could never know Victor better or be more truly, deeply engaged with him than those evenings, early on, when they sat together as Victor loved to, with the boy's face buried in the man's hands. But the more Itard taught Victor, the more civilized he became, the more the distance between them grew." (You'll find Gerstein's full essay here; scroll to the bottom of the page.)

Illustration by Marc Simont

From the Ashes and Snow series by Gregory Colbert

In India in the 1920s two small girls were discovered living in the wild among a pack of wolves. They were captured (their "wolf mother" shot) and taken into an orphanage run by a missionary, Reverend Joseph Singh. Singh attempted to teach the girls to speak, walk upright, and behave like humans, not as wolves — with limited success.  His diaries make for fascinating (and horrifying) reading. Several works of fiction were inspired by this story, but the ones I particularly recommend are Children of the Wolf, a poignant children's novel by Jane Yolen, and "St. Lucy's Home for Girls Raised by Wolves," a wonderful short story by Karen Russell (published in her collection of the same title). Also, Second Nature by Alice Hoffman is an excellent contemporary novel on the Feral Child theme.

More recently, in 1996, an urban Feral Child was discovered living with a pack of dogs on the streets of Moscow. He resisted capture until the police finally separated the boy from his pack. "He had been living on the street for two years," writes Michael Newton. "Yet, as he had spent four years with a human family [before this], he could talk perfectly well. After a brief spell in a Reutov children's shelter, Ivan started school. He appears to be just like any other Moscow child. Yet it is said that, at night, he still dreams of dogs."

An illustration for Kipling's The Jungle Book by Edward Julius Detmold (1883-1975)

When we read about such things as adults and parents, the thought of a child with no family but wolves or dogs is a deeply disturbing one. . .but when we read from a child's point of view, there is something secretly thrilling about the idea of life lived among an animal pack, or shedding the strictures of civilization to head into the woods. In this, of course, lies the enduring appeal of stories like Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book and Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan of the Apes. Explaining his youthful passion for such tales, Mordecai Gerstein writes: "The heart of my fantasy was leaving the human world for a kind of jungle Eden where all one needed was readily available and that had, in Kipling's version, less hypocrisy, more nobility. I liked best the idea of being protected from potential enemies by powerful animal friends."

Child with Bears by Katerina Plotnikova

Alexandra Bochkareva

And here we begin to approach another aspect of Wild Child (and Orphaned Hero) tales that makes them so alluring to many young readers: the idea that a parentless life in the wild might be a better, or a more exciting, one. For children with difficult childhoods, the appeal of running away to the forest is obvious: such stories provide escape, a vision of life beyond the confines of a troubled home. But even children from healthy families need fictional escape from time to time. In the wild, they can shed their usual roles (the eldest daughter, middle son, the baby of the family, etc.) and enter other realms in which they are solitary actors. Without adults to guide them (or, contrarily, to restrict them), these young heroes are thrown back, time and time again, on their own resources. They must think, speak, act for themselves. They have no parental safety net below. This can be a frightening prospect, but it is also a liberating one — for although there's no one to catch them if they fall, there's no one to scold them for it eithe

Where the Wild Things Are by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

Peter Pan by David Wyatt

J.M. Barrie addresses this theme, of course, in his much-loved children's fantasy Peter Pan -- which draws upon Scottish changeling legends, twisted into interesting new shapes. Barrie's Peter is human-born, not a faery, but he's lived in Never Land so long that he's as much a faery as he is a boy: magical, capricious, and amoral. He's a complex mixture of good and bad, with little understanding of the difference between them -- both cruel and kind, thoughtless and generous, arrogant and tender-hearted, bloodthirsty and sentimental. This dual nature makes Peter Pan a classic trickster character, kin to Puck, Robin Goodfellow, and other delightful but exasperating sprites of faery lore: both faery and child, mortal and immortal, villain (when he lures children from their homes) and hero (when he rescues them from pirates).

Peter Pan by Brian FroudPeter's last name derives from the Greek god Pan, the son of the trickster god Hermes by a wood nymph of Arcadia. Pan is a creature of the wilderness, associated with vitality, virility, and ceaseless energy. Like Peter, the god Pan is a contradictory figure. He haunts solitary mountains and groves, where he's quick to anger if he's disturbed, but he also loves company, music, dancing, and riotous celebrations. He is the leader of a woodland band of satyrs — but these "Lost Boys" are a wilder crew than Peter's, famed for drunkenness, licentiousness, and creating havoc (or "panic"). Pan himself is a distinctly lusty god — and here the comparison must end, for Peter's wildness has no sexual edge. Indeed, it's sex and the other mysteries of adulthood that he's specifically determined to avoid. ("You mustn't touch me. No one must ever touch me," Peter tells Wendy.)

Although Peter Pan makes a brief appearance in Barrie's 1902 novel The Little White Bird, his story as we know it now really began as a children's play, which debuted on the London stage in 1904. The playscript was subsequently published under the title Peter Pan, or the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up; and eventually Barrie novelized the story in the book Peter and Wendy. (It's a wonderful read in Barrie's original text, full of sharp black humor.) Peter and Wendy ends with a poignant scene that does not exist in the play: Peter comes back to Wendy's window years later, and discovers she is all grown up. The little girl in the nursery now is Wendy's own daughter, Jane. The girl examines Peter with interest, and soon she's off to Never Land herself...where Wendy can no longer go, no matter how much she longs to follow.

Peter Pan at the Window by F.D. Bedford (1864-1954)

Illustration by Robert Ingpen

The fairy tale forest, like Never Land, is not a place we are meant to remain, lest, like Peter or the children stolen by faeries, we become something not quite human. Young heroes return triumphant from the woods (trials completed, curses broken, siblings saved, pockets stuffed with treasure), but the blunt fact is that they must return. In the old tales, there is no sadness in this, no lingering, backward glance to the forest; the stories end "happily ever after" with the children restored to the human world. In this sense, the wild depths of the wood represent the realm of childhood itself, and the final destination is an adulthood rich in love, prosperity, and joy.  From Victorian times onward, however, a new note of regret creeps in at the end of the story. A theme that we find over and over again in Victorian fantasy literature is that magic and wonder are accessible only to children, lost on the threshold of adulthood. From Lewis Carroll’s "Alice" books to J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, these writers grieved that their wise young heroes would one day grow up and leave the woods behind.

Of course, many of us never do leave the woods behind: we return through the pages of magical books and we return in actuality, treasuring our interactions with the wild world through all the years of our lives. But that part of the forest specific to childhood does not truly belong to us now -- and that's exactly as it should be. Each generation bequeaths it to the next. Our job as adults, as I see it, is to protect that enchanted place by  preserving wilderness and stories both. Our job is to open the window at night and to watch from the shadows as Peter arrives; it's our children's turn to step over the sill. Our job is to teach them to navigate by the stars and to bless them on their way.

Barrie was wrong, by the way, for we adults have our owns forms of magic too, and the wild wood still welcomes us. But it's right, I think, that there should be a corner of it forever marked "Grown-ups, keep out!" Where children are heroes of their own stories, kings and queens of their own wild worlds.

Peter Pan by Charles Buchel (1872-1950)

The wildwood art above is: "The Miracle of Tears" by Sulamith Wulfing; "Moses in the Bulrushes," artist unknown; "Canopy: Variation on Remus & Romulus" by Adrian Arleo; "Remus & Romulus," an Ertruscan bronze; "Wolf Mama" and "Starchild" by Susan Seddon-Boulet; 'Little Redcap," two illustrations for "Hansel & Gretel," and "Thumbelina" by Lisbeth Zwerger; two illustrations for "Snow White" by Trina Schart Hyman; "Donkeyskin" drawing by Anneclaire Macé; "Three Black Dogs" by Kelly Louise Judd; "Tiger Girls by Fay Ku; "Baby Stolen by Gobins" by Maurice Sendak; "The Changeling" by Arthur Rackham; "Wolf Girl" by Anne Siems; "Sleeping with the Bear" by Marc Simont; a photograph from the "Ashes and Snow" series by Gregory Colbert; "Mowgli" by Edward Julius Detmold; "Girl with Bears" by Katerina Plotnikova;"Girl with Fox" by Alexandra Bochkareva; "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak; "Peter Pan" by David Wyatt; "Peter Pan" by Brian Froud; "Peter Pan at the Window" by F.D. Beford; a drawing by Robert Ingapen; and "Peter Pan" by Charles Buchel. All rights reserved by the artists or their estates.

Words: Parts of this post have been drawn from these articles: The Orphaned Hero, Changelings, Peter Pan. It first appeared on Myth & Moor in 2013. All rights reserved.


The Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic:
an alternative view

The ''Briar Rose'' design by William Morris, in progress

Whenever discussing Pre-Raphaelite house design (as we were yesterday), I'm always reminded of this wry description of Edward Burne-Jones' country place, North End House in Rottingdean, as seen from a child's perspective. The child is his grand-daughter, who grew up to be the novelist Angela Thirkell:

Edward Burne-Jones, painter,  and his grand-daughter Angela"Curtains and chintzes were all were all of Morris stuffs, a bright pattern of yellow birds and red roses," Angela writes. "The low sofa and oak table were designed by one or another Pre-Raphaelite friend of the house, or made to my grandfather's orders by the village carpenter. As I look back on the furniture of my grandparents' two houses I marvel chiefly at the entire lack of comfort which the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood succeeded in creating for itself. It was not, I think, so much that they actively despised comfort, as that the word conveyed absolutely nothing to them whatever. I can truthfully say that neither at North End Road [in London] nor at North End House [in Rottingdean] was there a single chair that invited to repose, and the only piece of comfortable furniture that my grandparents ever possessed was their drawing-room sofa in London, a perfectly ordinary large sofa with good springs, only disguised by Morris chintzes. The sofas at Rottingdean were simply long low tables with a little balustrade round two, or sometimes three sides, made of plain oak, or of some inferior wood painted white. There was a slight concession to human frailty in the addition of rigidly hard squabs covered with chintz or blue linen and when to these my grandmother had added a small bolster apparently made of concrete and two or three thin unyielding cushions, she almost blamed herself for wallowing in undeserved luxury.

Sussex chairs by Morris & Co

"The best sofa in the house was a massive wooden affair painted shiny black. It was too short to lie on and you could only sit on it in an upright position, as if you tried to lean you hit your head against the high back. It was upholstered in yellow-brown velvet of such rich and excellent quality that it stuck to one's clothes, making it impossible to move about, and the unyielding cushions and rigid bolsters took up more room than the unlucky users.

Ladies & Animals sideboard by Edward Burne-Jones

"Each bedroom was provided with an oak washing-stand of massive proportions and a towel-horse conceived on aethetic lines but sadly wanting in stability and far too apt to fall heavily forward on to a small child, smothering it in bath towels. As for Pre-Raphaelite beds, it can only have been the physical vigour and perfect health of their original designers that made them believe their work was fit to sleep in. It is true that the spring mattress was then in embryonic stage and there were no spiral springs to prevent a bed from taking the shape of a drinking-trough after a few weeks' use, but even this does not excuse the use of wooden slats running lengthways as an aid to refreshing slumber.

"Luckily children never know when they are uncomfortable and the Pre-Raphaelites had in many essentials the childlike mind."

Painted settle in the hallway at Red House

''Topsy and Ned Jones Settled on the Settle in Red Lion Square'' by Sir Max Beerbohm

Words: The text above is from Three Houses, a short but delightful memoir by Angela Thirkell (Oxford University Press, 1931); all rights reserved by the author's estate.

Pictures: The Briar Rose design by William Morris, in progress. A photograph of Burne-Jones with his grand-daughter Angela. The classic, simple "Sussex chair" produced by Morris & Co. "Ladies & Animals," a painted sideboard by Burne-Jones. The front hallway of Red House, an Arts & Crafts building designed by William Morris & Phillip Webb. Topsy (Morris) and Ned (Burne-Jones) on a hand-painted settle in their rooms at Red Lion Square, drawn by satirist Max Beerbohm for his book Rossetti and His Circle (1922).


Skunk Dreams

The Skunk and the Magnolias by Jessica Roux

I'm sure I was not the only child who dreamed of sleeping with wild animals, although the closest I've come to that Jungle Book fantasy is to curl up with Tilly snoring beside me. The reality of animal life in the wild is different than fantasy tales of course -- as Louise Erdrich reminds us in this passage from her essay "Skunk Dreams":

"When I was fourteen, I slept alone on a North Dakota football field under the cold stars on an early spring night. May is unpredictable in the Red River Valley, and I happened to hit a night when frost formed in the grass. A skunk trailed a plume of steam across the forty-yard line near moonrise. I tucked the top of my sleeping bag over my head and was just dosing off when the skunk walked onto me with simple authority.

The Mouse and the Buttercup by Jessica Roux"Its ripe odor must have dissipated in the frozen earth of its winterlong hibernation, because it didn't smell all that bad, or perhaps it was just that I took shallow breaths in numb surprise. I felt him -- her, whatever -- pause on the side of my hip and turn around twice before evidently deciding I was a good place to sleep. At the back of my knees, on the quilting of my sleeping bag, it trod out a spot for itself and then, with a serene little groan, curled up and lay perfectly still. That made two of us. I was wildly awake, trying to forget the sharpness and number of skunk teeth, trying not to think of the high percentage of skunks with rabies, or the reason that on camping trips my father kept a hatchet underneath his pillow. 

"Inside the bag, I felt as if I might smother. Careful, making only the slightest of rustles, I drew the bag away from my face and took a deep breath of the night air, enriched with skunk, but clear and watery and cold. It wasn't so bad, and the skunk didn't stir at all, so I watched the moon -- caught that night in an envelope of silk, a mist -- passing over my sleeping field of teenage guts and glory. The grass in spring that has lain beneath the snow harbors a sere dust both cold and fresh. I smelled that newness beneath the rank tone of my bag-mate -- the stiff fragrance of damp earth and the thick pungency of newly manured fields  a mile or two away -- along with my sleeping bag's smell, slightly mildewed, forever smoky. The skunk settled even closer and began to breath rapidly; it's feet jerked a little like a dog's. I sank against the earth and fell asleep too.

The Deer and the Oats by Jessica Roux

"Of what easily tipped cans, what molten sludge, what dogs in back yards, what leftover macaroni casseroles, what cellar holes, crawl spaces, burrows taken from meek woodchucks, of what miracles of garbage did my skunk dream? Or did it, since we can't be sure, dream the plot of Moby Dick, how to properly age parmesan, or how to restore the brick-walled, tumbledown creamery that was its home? We don't know about the dreams of any other biota, and even much about our own. If dreams are an actual dimesion, as some assert, then the usual rules of life by which we abide do not apply. In that place, skunks may certainly dream themselves into the vests of stockbrokers. Perhaps that night the skunk and I dreamed each other's thoughts, or are still dreaming them. To paraphrase the problem of the Chinese sage, I may be a woman who has dreamed herself a skunk, or a skunk still dreaming she is a woman....

The Hare and the Oak by Jessica Roux

"Skunks don't mind each other's vile perfume. Obviously they find each other more than tolerable. And even I, who have been in the direct presence of a skunk hit, wouldn't classify their weapon as mere smell. It is more on the order of a reality-enhancing experience. It's not so pleasant as standing in a grove of old-growth red cedars, or watching trout rise to the shadow of your hand on the placid surface of an Alpine lake. When the skunk lets go, you are surrounded by skunk presence: inhabited, owned, involved with something you can only describe as powerfully there.

"I woke at dawn, stunned into that sprayed state of being. The dog that had approached me was rolling the grass, half-addled, sprayed too. The skunk was gone. I abandoned my sleeping bag and started home. Up Eighth Street, past the tiny blue and pink houses, past my grade school, past all the addresses where I had baby-sat, I walked in my own strange wind. The streets were wide and empty; I met no one -- not a dog, not a squirrel, not even an early robin. Perhaps they had all scattered before me, blocks away. I had gone out to sleep on the football field because I was afflicted with a sadness I had to dramatize. Mood swings had begun, hormones, feverish and brutal. They were nothing to me now. My emotions seemed vast, dark, and sickeningly private. But they were minor, mere wisps, compared to skunk."

The Goat and the Willow by Jessica Roux

The Chipmunk and the Bay Laurel by Jessica Roux

The art today is by Jessica Roux, an American painter whose work is rich in carefully-observed flora and fauna. Raised in the woodlands of North Carolina, Roux studied at the Savannah College of Art & Design in Georgia, and now works as a freelance illustrator and stationary designer.

"I can’t get enough of history," she says. "Old lithographs and studies by early naturalists are some of my favorite things. I love medieval bestiaries and the early Northern Renaissance. I’m also really inspired by nature. There are just so many strange plants and animals out there that I want to know more about."

The images here are from Roux's "Woodland Wardens" series, an oracle deck in progress. (I hope it's completed and published soon.) For those of you in or near Tennessee, the series can be viewed in the Jessica Roux exhibition at Gallery 205 in Columbia through Dec. 1st.

You can also see more of her work on her website and in her print shop here.

The Fox and the Ivy by Jessica Roux

The passage above is from "Skunk Dreams" by Louise Erdrich, first published in The Georgia Review (1993). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the author and artist.


Seeing green

Wildflower path

Jill Paton Walsh on writing for children:

"I suppose that it is because literature is so abstract that people evince so little common sense about it. For children's writers, like other writers, practice a craft. I don't imagine many people think that a children's doctor need not be so good at medicine as his colleagues, or that a carpenter who  Heidi Reading by Jessie Wilcox Smithmakes toys can manage with shoddy joinery. The truth is that a book which is bad literature just doesn't have much effect of any kind; doesn't work for anyone, young or old. Like any other writer, a children's writer has got to be good.

"It isn't even true that there is somehow a different sort of goodness appropriate to children's books. The problems and the satisfactions of the writer-craftsman working for children are mainstream problems, mainstream satisfactions. I am taking it for granted that an adult writer will seek to embody and communicate adult insights in his books, will not solve problems by talking down to his audience. That being so, one might think that the writer for children has a much greater problem in getting himself understood. But that thought underestimates children, and over-values understanding.

Winding into the woods border=

"One doesn't specially want a child reader to understand intellectually, to (as it were) decode the message in a work of fiction. After all, he doesn't -- God keep us from it! -- have to sit an examination on his reading. It is enough, it is better, if the reader simply experiences a book, simply feels it. And a reader can feel truly on a very partial understanding.

A shimmer of bluebells

"I will instance my own children, watching the televised War and Peace. When Natasha met clandestinely with Kuriagin they became deeply agitated. She couldn't! -- what would happen? -- what about Prince Andre? -- oh dear no! Of course, they couldn't understand the passion that motivated Natasha; they saw it entirely as a question of loyalty. But it is that, among other things. They see only a part of the whole, but what they do see is seen truly, not in distortion.

Following the light

Old oak

"Fully understanding a book is too often like being led forward in front of a pointilliste painting, and shown how the green is made up of spots of pure blue and pure yellow. One 'understands,' but one can no longer see green.

Black dog

"I can do without being understood," Walsh concludes, "as long as the reader sees green. The problem of being comprehensible is an emotional, an aesthetic problem -- that of making the book adequately embody its meaning: that of getting the reader to 'see green' and making the seeing of green, just thus and then, emotionally meaningful. This is the central problem of literary art."

Moss, rock, and bluebells

Queen of the woods

Devon bluebells

Tilly in the springWords: The passages above and in the picture captions are from "Seeing Green" by Jill Paton Walsh, published in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, edited by Edward Blishen (Kestral Books, 1975); all rights reserved by the author. I recommend seeking out Blishen's book and reading the essay in full. Pictures: Bluebell season in the woods behind the studio. The drawing is an illustration for Heidi by Jessie Willcox Smith (1863-1935).


Talking to the moon

Hillside 1

After writing about kindness yesterday, I've been thinking about the ways in which the lack of kindness propels some of us into the arts: not only as way to retreat from pain, or to cope with it, or to attempt to understand it, but also as a means of creating (to quote Anais Nin) "a world in which one can live."

For example, here's a passage by British novelist Catherine Storr from her essay "Why Write? Why Write for Children?" (published in The Thorny Paradise). Storr describes her parents as loving ones who did not mean to be unkind, and yet her own open-hearted nature was viewed with deep suspicion:

"I am a compulsive writer," Storr begins. " I suppose that before I'd learn to write without too much difficulty, I was a compulsive talker. This is borne out by the memory of hearing my parents say, 'Catherine never stops talking.' I think I went on talking too much until the awkwardness of adolesence overcame the habit. But before that I'd discovered writing; and though it didn't immediately cure me of talking too much, it did provide an outlet for the need to communicate.

Hillside 2

"What I needed to communicate was feelings. We were a very buttoned up family as far as the emotions were concerned. I don't remember ever doubting that my parents loved us, but they never said so in so many words. They also weren't at all physically demonstrative; you had to be in considerable distress before you got picked up and hugged. Kissing was something you did before going to bed or saying goodbye for a longer period. This restraint didn't come naturally to me at all, and besides being told I talked too much, I was also frequently told I shouldn't ask for displays of affection. It was recognized in the family that Catherine was sentimental, and that this should be discouraged.

"Until I was ten, these reprehensible feelings had to be repressed, or carefully monitored so that they didn't offend my parents' austere standards. I can still remember attributing one particular enthusiasm to my doll, so that I wouldn't be held responsible for it. It was a marvelous day in the country and I was aching to say so to someone, but I knew if I did I'd be laughed at, so I said, 'Ruthy is feeling sentimental. She says, "How blue the sky! How green the grass!" But even this ruse didn't work. I was laughed at again.

Hillside 3

"What happened when I was ten was that the door suddenly opened. I was lying in bed with the curtains undrawn and I saw a huge white moon looking at me through the branches of the aspen poplar tree which stood about forty feet away in the garden opposite my window. It must have been spring, I think, because the branches were bare. I got out of bed and wrote a poem to the moon with a blunt pencil on a sheet of manuscript music paper, which was all I could find. It was blank verse and until that moment I'd had no idea that I could write anything more ambitious than rhyming couplets. It was a very exciting moment. Probably all the more exciting because it was forbidden to wander out of bed after eight o'clock. Then next morning I read the poem through and was rather impressed by it. It was a great deal better than I'd have expected."

That little girl grew up to become the author of over thirty books for children and adults (as well as a medical doctor and psychologist), writing right up to her death at age 87. Having raised three daughters, Storr was often asked if her childrens' books had been written for them. Well yes, to some degree, she said, but mostly she'd written them for herself:

"William Mayne, when asked for whom he wrote his books, said: For the child I once was. I'm sure this is true of many writers for children, but  I think it is also true that that one writes for the child one still is."

Hillside 4

The Thorny ParadiseThe passage above is from "Why Write? Why Write for Children" by Catherine Storr, published in The Thorny Paradise: Writers on Writing for Children, edited by Edward Blishen (Kestral Books, 1975). The poem in the picture captions is from Poetry magazine (October 2012). All rights reserved by the authors or their estates.


Lloyd Alexander on blessings in disguise and the value of fantasy

Hillside 1

Lloyd Alexander (1924-2007) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, served in military intelligence during World War II, studied at the University of Paris after the war, then worked in advertising and journalism (as a cartoonist and layout artist) while launching his career as a novelist. He initially wrote books for adults, but when he finally found his way to children's literature, he had found his true home. Generations have now grown up with his Prydain Chronicles and other extraordinary novels, which are classics of the fantasy field.

"I have to smile, remembering myself as a very much younger man," Alexander recalled in his Newbery Award acceptance speech (for The High King in 1969). "I was still looking for a way to say -- whatever it was, if anything, I had to say.

"Although it didn't feel that way at the time, those years were a blessing, heavily disguised. Or, say, the kind of gift the enchantresses Orddu, Orwen, and Orgoch bestow on the unwitting recipient. Perhaps we have to serve an apprenticeship to life before we can serve one to art. We can't begin doing our best for children until we ourselves begin growing up.

Hillside 2

"I still can't say,  precisely what unreasonable reasons brought me to write for children -- beyond saying I simply wanted to. Even though I can't analyze what led me to children's literature, I do know what I found there. For me, a true form of art that not only helped me understand something of what I wanted to say but also let me discover ideas, attitudes, and feelings I never suspected were there in the first place....

Hillside 3

Hillside 4

"At heart, the issues raised in a work of fantasy are those we face in real life. In whatever guise -- our own daily nightmares of war, intolerance, inhumanity, or the struggles of an Assistant Pig-Keeper against the Lord of Death -- the problems are agonizingly familiar. And an openness to compassion, love, and mercy is as essential to us here and now as it is to any inhabitant of an imaginary kingdom."

Which confirms my belief that we need literature now, and especially fantasy literature, more than ever.

Hillside 5

Hillside 6

Hillside 7The text above is from Lloyd Alexander's acceptance speech for the Newbery Medal in 1969; all rights reserved by the author's estate.


Fairy tales and fantasy, when the need is greatest

The Cock and the Fox by Milo Winter

"In an age that seems to be increasingly dehumanized, when people can be transformed into non-persons, and where a great deal of our adult art seems to diminish our lives rather than add to them, children's literature insists on the values of humanity and humaneness."  - Lloyd Alexander

Two illustrations for Alice in Wonderland by Milo Winter

"The great subversive works of children's literature suggest that there are other views of human life besides those of the shopping mall and the corporation. They mock current assumptions and express the imaginative, unconventional, noncommercial view of the world in its simplest and purest form. They appeal to the imaginative, questioning, rebellious child within all of us, renew our instinctive energy, and act as a force for change. This is why such literature is worthy of our attention and will endure long after more conventional tales have been forgotten." 

- Alison Lurie (Don't Tell the Grown-Ups)

Alice in Wonderland by Milo Winter

"The fairy tale, which to this day is the first tutor of children because it was once the first tutor of mankind, secretly lives on in the story. The first true storyteller is, and will continue to be, the teller of fairy tales. Whenever good counsel was at a premium, the fairy tale had it, and where the need was greatest, its aid was nearest."

- Walter Benjamin ("The Storyteller," Selected Writings: 1935-1938)

Thumbelina & The Wild Swans by Milo Winter

"This is the thing about fairy tales: You have to live through them, before you get to happily ever after. That ever after has to be earned, and not everyone makes it that far."

- Kat Howard (Roses and Rot)

Belling the Cat by Milo Winter

"If you read fairy tales carefully, you’ll notice they are mostly about people who aren’t heroes. They don’t have special powers, or gifts. Often they are despised as stupid, They are bullied, beaten up, robbed, starved. But they find they are stronger than their misfortunes." 

- Amanda Craig (In a Dark Wood)

The Tortoise and the Hare by Milo Winter

"People who’ve never read fairy tales have a harder time coping in life than the people who have. They don’t have access to all the lessons that can be learned from the journeys through the dark woods and the kindness of strangers treated decently, the knowledge that can be gained from the company and example of Donkeyskins and cats wearing boots and steadfast tin soldiers. I’m not talking about in-your-face lessons, but more subtle ones. The kind that seep up from your sub-conscious and give you moral and humane structures for your life. That teach you how to prevail, and trust. And maybe even love." 

- Charles de Lint (The Onion Girl)

From Aesop's for Children by Milo Winter

From Aesop for Children by Milo Winter

The art today is by the American illustrator Milo Winter (1888-1956).

Born in Princeton, New Jersey, Winter trained at The School of the Arts Institute in Chicago, and illustrated his first children's book (Billy Popgun) at the age of 24. He lived in Chicago until the 1950s, and in New York City thereafter, illustrating a wide range of books for both children and adults -- including Gulliver’s Travels, Tanglewood Tales, Arabian Nights, Alice in Wonderland, Twenty Thousand Leagures Under the Sea, The Three Muskateers, Treasure Island, A Christmas Carol Aesops for Children, and  Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales.

Two illustrations for Billy Popgun by Milo Winter

The Town Mouse and the Country Mouse by Milo Winter