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On loss and transfiguration

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

The classic makers of children's literature, writes Alison Lurie,

"are not usually men and women who had consistently happy childhoods -- or even consistently unhappy ones. Rather they are those whose early happiness ended suddenly and often disastrously. Characteristically, they lost one or both parents early. They were abruptly shunted from one home to another, like Louisa May Alcott, Kenneth Grahame, and Mark Twain -- or even, like Frances Hodgson Burnett, E. Nesbit, and J.R.R. Tolkien, from one country to another. L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll were sent away to harsh and bullying schools; Rudyard Kipling was taken from India to England by his affectionate but ill-advised parents and left in the care of stupid and brutal strangers. Cheated of their full share of childhood, these men and women later re-created, and transfigured, their lost worlds. "

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

Kenneth Grahame's Wind in the Willows, illustrated by Inga Moore

J.M Barrie falls into this catagory, the happiness of his early childhood vanishing into darkness and gloom when an elder brother, the family favorite, died in a skating accident, after which Barrie's mother retreated permanently to her bed. C.S. Lewis was ten when he lost his mother to cancer (and just four when his beloved dog, Jacksie, was killed by a car -- a loss that so effected him that he insisted upon being called Jack for the rest of his life). George MacDonald lost his mother to tuberculosis at the age of eight. Enid Blyton's happy childhood in Kent ended Inga Mooreabruptly when her beloved father left the family for another woman, leaving Enid behind with a mother who disapproved of her interest in nature, literature, and art.

The sudden loss of a happier childhood world doesn't turn everyone into a children's book writer, of course, but it's interesting to note how many fine writers' backgrounds are marked by such loss; and Lurie may be correct that the desire to re-create the lost world lies at the heart of a particular form of creative inspiration. Or perhaps I'm just struck by Lurie's idea because it maps onto my own childhood, which was, from a child's point of view, safe and stable for the first six years when I lived in my grandmother's household (with my teenage mother and her sisters), and then plunged into darkness upon my mother's marriage to a brutal man, a stranger to me until the day of the wedding. Loss of home at a tender age can indeed send an unhappy child inward, seeking lands in imagination uncorrupted by the treacherous adult world.

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

Last week, we talked about concepts of home, place, connection to the landscape, and the way these things impact creative work. Today I'd like to come at the subject from a slightly different direction, with the idea that loss of home can be as powerful a creative spur as the finding of the heart's home, or the love of a long-established one.

Loss can come about in so many different ways, and needn't be dramatic to cause lasting trauma. I'm thinking, for example, of a loss all too common today in our over-populated world: the loss of treasured childhood landscapes to the unchecked sprawl of cities and suburbs, of beloved old houses and places we can never return to, buried under shopping malls and parking lots. 

The Secret Garden by Inga Moore

In her essay collection Language and Longing, Carolyn Servid writes poignantly of her husband's childhood in an isolated valley in the mountains of Colorado. Lightly populated by old ranching families, artists, and hermits, the valley was a sanctuary for humans and animals alike...until the development of the nearby town of Aspen into a ski resort and playground for the wealthy began to raise property prices on Aspen's periphery. When the dirt road into the valley was paved, change was not long behind: land speculation, housing developments, a golf course. The valley as generations had known and loved it was gone. Servid writes:

"[My husband] had witnessed this gradual transformation during summers home from college. He witnessed more changes every time he visited after marriage and various jobs took him out of the valley. He chronicled those changes to me before he ever drove me up the Crystal River Road to the Redstone house. The landscape stunned me the first time I saw it, and I watched it bring a deep smile of recognition to Dorik's eyes, but I knew his memories were of a wholeness that was no longer there. I realized he held a kind of perspective and knowledge that has been lost over and over again in the settlement of the continent, over and over again in the civilization of the world."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

A little later, he learns that a neighbor's ranch has been sold off to a developer:

"I watched his face tighten, and knew that a deepening ache was filling him. Places and people he loved were both caught in the wake of rampant development that grew like a cancer. The impact was like a diagnosis of the disease itself, as though one of the most fundamental aspects of his life was being eaten away. I wondered then about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love. This grief doesn't have much standing among the range of emotions that our society values. We have yet to fully acknowledge and accept just how much our hearts are entwined with the places that shape us, tolerate us, hold us, provide for us. We have yet to openly testify and accede to the necessity of such places and love of them in our daily lives. We have yet to fully understand that our links as people living together in communties will never be more than transient and vulnerable without rootedness in the place itself."

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

Just as Servid wonders "about the grief that comes to us when we lose the places we love," I wonder about the ways such a loss impacts us as writers and artists. Grief is a powerful thing, and especially so when it rumbles away, unexpressed, in the depth of our souls, the quiet but constant base note of our lives. Grief for landscapes paved over, ways of life that are gone, for whole species that are rapidly vanishing around us. Grief can indeed be a spur to art, leading us to "re-create or transfigure" our cherished lost worlds, or it can do the reverse: deaden and silence and paralyze us.

Your thoughts?

Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden, illustrated by Inga Moore

Like yesterday, the beautiful art in this post is by Inga Moore, who was born in Sussex, raised in Australia (from the age of eight), and returned to England when she reached adulthood. Joanna Carey, in her lovely portrait of the artist, writes:

Inga Moore"An imaginative, somewhat subversive child, she drew constantly, illustrating not just her own stories but also her schoolbooks, her homework, tests and exam papers. 'If you'd only stop all this silly drawing,' said the Latin teacher, 'you might one day amount to something.' She did stop -- 'for a long time' -- and is still resentful about that teacher's attitude. She regrets not going to art school, and endured 'one boring job after another' before eventually getting back to the drawing board. Supporting herself making maps for a groundwater company, she embarked on a series of landscapes and happily rediscovered her passion for drawing."

 The pictures here are from Moore's editions of The Wind in the Willows, The Secret Garden, and The Reluctant Dragon, all highly recommended.

Kenneth Grahame's The Reluctant Dragon, illustrated by Inga Moore

The passage by Alison Lurie is from Don't Tell the Grown-ups: Subversive Children's Literature (Little, Brown Publishers, 1990). The passage by Carolyn Servid is from Of Language and Longing: Finding a Home at the Water's Edge (Milkweed Editions, 2000). The quote by Joanna Carey is from "Inga Moore, illustrator of The Wind in the Willows" ( The Guardian, Feburary 6, 2010). All rights to the text and art above reserved by the authors and artist.


I recognise this grief in myself. My nostalgia for the house, home, in which I grew up, is overwhelming and I feel deep sadness, constantly. It truly does "rumble away ... the constant base note" of my life. And it's true, it paralyzes me. I can't shake it free nor transform it.

Interesting. You could include John Lennon and Paul McCartney in this mix (Penny Lane, etc).

These words and illustrations press on all the locks within me that hold so tight to keep the grief from spilling out. Collectively another Spider in the form of a rogue virus has sat down beside us, all, and for me at least, the affects rewind all griefs. The overwhelm is powerful, but, there are the Sextiles ... the angles of opportunities (in astrological narrative) that offer me transformative avenues.
The posts over the past week or more here at Myth & Moor grease those angles -- I slide into the opportunity for something else -- and through the real loss and illness I find a way to re-story my now, folding in our place with five people, four goats, two hens, a cat and a dog. I write those pieces into a transforming mythic that I cobble together; pass to my grandson, coming soon. He will need to know how it is possible. He will need the tools once he leaves his personal ocean of creation. He will need to recognize a sextile and sense its transformative nature.
Thank you once again for the loving company and fearless acknowledgment of imperfection's gifts.

Having been a child in an abusive household, my grief is for what never was. So I'm not trying to re-create what has been lost, but trying to create what never existed. Which has its difficulties! But also has its rewards.

This Granddaughter

Not mine, but borrowed
through a late marriage.
We sit across from one another,
mischief and sorrow
sitting side by side
in her adolescent eyes.
She does not want to be here,
in her grandfather's house,
but back across the country
in a milder climate,
with her long time friends,
Not struggling to learn
on a computer, apart
from any locals she cannot meet.
Not being quizzed by a stranger
who would be a friend.
And I remember those strange
first days when I was this age,
torn from the city of my childhood
and thrust without having been warned
into a suburb of ranch houses,
]not even able to say good bye
to my city friends.
But almost seventy years
lie between this child
and me. If I cannot talk to her,
how can I talk to the one
who sulks across the table,
even on her birthday.
Especially then.

©2020 Jane Yolen all rights reserved

Hi Jane

What a beautiful and introspective poem. I think you capture perfectly that sense of estrangement one feels when displaced suddenly, losing one's sense of home and friends, even one's familiar identity. I also love the way the narrator relates to the young girl's feelings and longing to be elsewhere. As we mature/age, we often look back feeling we have lost something of our former selves, something that makes us question how have come to our present situation and how at times it makes us feel uncertain, even estranged from a comfortable place we once knew.

Thanks so much for sharing this,
as always, I love reading your work!

My best always,

I still hold a candle for a valley in Dorset. It was me who left, for another love. The valley is much as I knew it and the wildlife corridor I planted along the river is flourishing. Although I haven't visited for years, it matters, very much, to know that corner of the world is happy and well. Damage to it would certainly damage me.
The same is true of our recently-left home. I mourn the garden so much more than the house. I still dream-garden. Perhaps my girls still climb trees and cram their mouths with berries in their dreams too. The house has sold now and I find myself braced for news of the garden being smartened-up and 'managed'. The new owners are expecting a baby, so perhaps they will have no time for such things and the garden can, for one more spring, burst into the world waving its many arms in the air.
Meanwhile, I am becoming good friends with this new patch of land and together we are planning our future growth.

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