Stories with mischief in their blood

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

Storytelling is a subversive occupation, says Ben Okri:

"It is a double-headed axe. You think [the story] faces only one way, but it also faces you. You think it cuts only in one direction, but it also cuts you. You think it applies to others only, when it mainly applies to you. When you think it is harmless, that is when it springs its hidden truths, its uncomfortable truths, on you. It startles your complacency. And when you no longer listen, it lies silently in your brain, waiting.

A spot illustration by Inga Moore"Stories are very personal things. They drift about quietly in your soul. They never shout their most dangerous warnings. They sometimes lend amplification to the promptings of conscience, but their effect is more pervasive. They infect your dreams. They infect your perceptions. They are always successful in their occupation of your spirit. And stories always have mischief in their blood. Stories, as can be seen from my choice of associate images, are living things; and their real life begins when they start to live in you. Then they never stop living, or growing, or mutating, or feeding the groundswell of imagination, sensibility, and character.

"Stories are subversive because they always come from the other side, and we can never inhabit all sides at once. If we are here, story speaks for there; and vice versa. Their democracy is frightening; their ultimate non-allegiance is sobering. They are the freest inventions of our deepest selves, and they always take wing and soar beyond the place where we can keep them fixed."

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

The most memorable stories reflect something of ourselves, Okri adds. We live our lives on this side of the mirror,

"but when joy touches us, and when bliss flashes inside us briefly, we have a stronger intuition. The best life, and the life we would really want to live, is on the other side of the mirror -- the side that faces out to the great light and which hints at an unexpected paradise. The greatest stories speak to us with our voice, but they speak to us from the other side."

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

Alison Lurie points out that the some of most subversive stories of all can be found in children's literature. So many of the classics, from Alice in Wonderland to The Hobbit,

"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."

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

The Wind in the Willows illustrated by Inga Moore

In Why You Should Read Children's Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise, Katherine Rundell writes:

"A lot of children's fiction has a surprising politics to it. Despite all our tendencies in Britain towards order and discipline -- towards etiquette manuals and school uniforms that make the wearers look like tiny mayoral candidates -- our children's fiction is often slyly subversive. 

"Mary Poppins, for instance, is a precursor to the hippy creed: anti-corporate, pro-play. Mr. Banks (the name is significant) sits at a large desk 'and made money. All day long he worked, cutting out pennies and shillings...And he brought them home with him in his little black bag.' An illustration for E Nesbit's The Railway Children by Ing MooreEdith Nesbit was a Marxist socialist who named her son Fabian after the Fabian Society; The Story of the Treasure Seekers contains jagged little ironical stabs against bankers, politicians, newspapers offering 'get rich quick' schemes and the intellectual pretensions of the middle class.

"And the same is true across much of the world; it was Ursula Le Guin, one of the greatest American children's writers, who said this: 'We live in capitalism. Its power seems inescapable -- but then, so did the divine right of kings. Any human power can be resisted and changed by human beings. Resistance and change often begin in art. Very often in our art, the art of words.' Children's books in the house can be dangerous things in hiding, a sword concealed in an umbrella.

"Children's books are specifically written to be read by a section of society without political or economic power. People who have no money, no vote, no control over capital or labour or the institutions of state; who navigate the world in the knowledge of their vulnerability. And, by the same measure, by people who are not yet preoccupied by the obligations of labour, not yet skilled in forcing their own prejudices on to other people and chewing at their own hearts. And because at so many times in life, despite what we tell ourselves, adults are powerless too, we as adults must hasten to children's books to be reminded of what we have left to us, whenever we need to start out all over again." 

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

But there is also danger in stories, cautions Scott Russell Sanders,

"as in any great force. If the tales that captivate us are silly or deceitful, like most of those offered by television or advertising, they waste our time and warp our desires. If they are cruel they make us callous. If they are false and bullying, instead of drawing us into a thoughtful community they may lure us into an unthinking herd or, worst of all, into a crowd screaming for blood -- in which case we need other, truer stories to renew our vision. So The Diary of Anne Frank and Primo Levi's Survival in Auschwitz are antidotes to Mein Kamp. So Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man and Toni Morrison's Beloved are antidotes to the paranoid yarns of the Ku Klux Klan. So the patient exchange of stories between people searching for common ground is an antidote to the hasty sloganeering and slandering of talk shows....

"We are creatures of instinct, but not solely of instinct. More than any other animal we must learn to behave. In this perennial effort, as Ursula Le Guin says, 'Story is our nearest and dearest way of understanding our lives and finding our way onward.' Skill is knowing how to do something; wisdom is knowing when and why to do it, or to refrain from doing it. While stories may display skill aplenty, in technique or character or plot, what the best of them offer is wisdom. They hold a living reservoir of human possibilities, telling us what has worked before, what has failed, where meaning and purpose and joy might be found. At the heart of many a tale is a test, a puzzle, a riddle, a problem to solve; and that, surely, is the condition of our lives, both in detail -- as we decide how to act in the present moment -- and in general, as we seek to understand what it all means.

"Like so many characters, we are lost in a dark wood, a labyrinth, a swamp, and we need a trail of stories to show us the way back to our true home."

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

The lovely art today is by Inga Moore, who was born in Sussex, raised in Australia, and returned to England when she reached adulthood. She worked as an illustrator in London until the economic downturn caused her to lose her home there -- a fortunate loss, as it turns out. She relocated to the Gloucester countryside, discovered this rural corner of England to be her heart's home, and produced the remarkable illustrations for The Wind in the Willows and The Secret Garden for which she is now justly famed. You can learn more about the artist here

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

The Secret Garden illustrated by Inga Moore

Words: The passages quoted above are from A Way of Being Free: Essays by Ben Okri (Phoenix House, 1997); Don't Tell the Grown-ups: The Subversive Power of Children's Literature by Alison Lurie (Little Brown, 1990), Why You Should Read Children's Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise by Katherine Rundell (Bloomsbury, 2019), and The Force of Spirit: Essays by Scott Russel  (Beacon Press, 2000) -- each one of them highly recommended. All rights reserved by the authors.

Pictures: Illustrations for Kenneth Grahame's The Wind in the Willows and Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden by Inga Moore, plus one illustration for E. Nesbit's The Railway Children. All rights reserved by the artist.


On writing for children...and ourselves

Her Precious Fairy Tale Book by Terri Windling

"Children's fiction has a long and noble history of being dismissed," writes Katherine Rundell (in Why You Should Read Children's Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise). "Martin Amis once said in an interview: "People ask me if I ever thought of writing a children's book. I say: 'If I ever had a serious brain injury I might well write a children's book.' There is a particular smile that some people give when I tell them what I do -- roughly the same smile I'd expect had I told them I make miniature bath furniture out of matchboxes, for the elves.

"Storybooks by Terri WindlingParticularly in the UK, even when we praise, we praise with faint damns: a quotation from The Guardian on the back of Alan Garner's memoir Where Shall We Run To? read: 'He has never been just a children's writer: he's far richer, odder and deeper than that.' So that's what children's fiction is not: not rich or odd or deep.

"I've been writing children's fiction for more than ten years now, and still I would hesitate to define it. But I do know, with more certainty than I usually feel about anything, what it is not: it's not exclusively for children. When I write, I write for two people: myself, age twelve, and myself, now, and the book has to satisfy two distinct but connected appetites. My twelve-year-old self wanted autonomy, peril, justice, food, and above all a kind of dense atmosphere into which I could step and be engulfed. My adult self wants all those things, and also: acknowledgement of fear, love, failure; of the rat that lives within the human heart. So what I try for when I write -- failing often, but trying -- is to put down in as few words as I can the things that I most urgently and desperately want children to know and adults to remember. Those who write for children are trying to arm them for the life ahead with everything we can find that is true. And perhaps, also, secretly, to arm adults against those necessary compromises and necessary heartbreaks that life involves: to remind them that there are and always will be great, sustaining truths to which we can return."

Some Little People by Terri Windling

"In an age that seems to be increasingly dehumanized," Lloyd Alexander once noted, "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."

More Little People by Terri Windling

"We who hobnob with hobbits and tell tales about little green men are used to being dismissed as mere entertainers, or sternly disapproved of as escapists," said  Ursula K. Le Guin in her acceptance speech for the National Book Award (for The Farthest Shore, 1972). "But I think perhaps the categories are changing, like the times. Sophisticated readers are accepting the fact that an improbable and unmanageable world is going to produce an improbable and hypothetical art. At this point, realism is perhaps the least adequate means of understanding or portraying the incredible realities of our existence."

Bunny Sisters by Terri Windling

Tell Us a Story by Terri Windling

The Katherine Rundell quote above is from her delightful little book Why You Should Read Children's Books Even Though You Are So Old and Wise (Bloomsbury, 2019). The Ursula K. Le Guin quote is from The Language of the Night: Essays (Women's Press edition, 1989). Both volumes are highly recommended. I'm sorry, but I can't remember where that particular quote by Lloyd Alexander is from -- I foolishly scribbled it down without attribution. All rights to the text reserved by the authors or their estates.

The pictures above are some random little sketches of mine, titled: Her Precious Fairy Tale Book, Storybooks, Some Little People, More Little People, Bunny Sisters (Family Portrait), and Tell Us a Story. 


Little shape-shifters

In the video above, Cornelia Funke (author of The Thief Lord, Inkheart, etc.) speaks about the need for wilderness in children's lives. "Kids are so very good at still being shape-shifters, and shifting into feathers and fur. They still understand that we are connected to everything in this world, and that we are part of an incredibly intricate woven web of life and creatures."

Born in Dorsten, West Germany, Funke began her career as a social worker focused on children from deprived backgrounds; she then became a book illustrator before turning her hand to writing fantasy for young readers. Funke and her family moved from Hamburg, Germany to California in 2005. 

Detail from The Dreaming - T Windling"I'm fascinated by stories that stem from a particular place," she says. "That started with The Thief Lord, which wouldn't have come into being if it weren't for Venice. In the stories I choose to tell, places always play the role of a hero. I have also always been interested in the non-human and our relationship to that – whether plants or animals or imaginary creatures. I'm interested in everything that scratches at and questions the so-called reality that we perceive.

"When I'm standing on the street in Hamburg and there is one of those stepping stones under my feet, which is there to remind me of the Jews that were deported from the house I'm standing in front of, then that hugely scratches at the reality I find myself in at that moment. I might just have come back from a peaceful walk across the Isemarkt market square, for example. It scratches at my reality when a bird flies by me and I imagine how it views reality. It scratches at my reality when someone passes me by who has a different color of skin. How does that change the experience with world? We all know it does.

"It constantly scratches at my reality that we can perceive this world so differently. I find it absurd I'm asked so often why I write fantasy, because I think that reality is fantastic. And the only way to get closer to it is to write fantasy."

Little Shape-shifters - T Windling

"I write stories I love to read myself. And I am profoundly enchanted by children and young readers, by their openness and curiosity, by their will to still ask the big questions about the world: where do we come from? What is this all about? Why is the world so beautiful and terrible at the same time? Children also still understand that we are just part of a huge web and connected to every plant and creature on this planet. They are still shape shifters and go easily into a story, whereas adults often hesitate to allow their imagination to give them feathers and wings."

The Lost Child - T Windling

The paintings and drawings are by me today. They are: A detail from "The Dreaming," three little shape-shifters, and "The Lost Child." The last one was painted for our daughter when she was young and going through a hard time. Every child needs a Guardian Spirit. I know that I certainly did.

The Cornelia Funke quotes are from interviews in Scroll.in (Dec. 2, 2018) and DW (Oct. 12, 2018). The video is from The Wilderness Society (Feb. 17, 2012). All rights to text and imagery reserved by the author, filmmaker, and artist.


On J.M. Barrie and Peter Pan

J.M. Barrie & Michael Llewelyn Davies

Charles Dickens once stated that Little Red Riding Hood was his first love, and if only he could have married her, he would have known perfect bliss. For me, my first love was Peter Pan -- that charming, exasperating rascal of a boy, killer of pirates and intimate of fairies. But in my generation, we first encountered Peter as portrayed by the actress Mary Martin (in a televised version of the stage play Peter Pan), which created a certain gender confusion. Was Peter a boy (or girl) I had a crush on, or the dashing figure that I wanted to be myself? Play-acting the role of Wendy was boring, too much sewing and mothering of Lost Boys;  play-acting Peter was so much better, strutting and scheming and  fighting pirates. I dreamed of flight, and fairy dust, and Indian drums sounding in the woods; and insisted on leaving the bedroom window cracked in case Peter should appear....

Peter's creator, Sir James Matthew Barrie, died on this day in 1937. Today's post is dedicated to Barrie and to Peter, two boys who never grew up.

Captain Hook and Peter by PJ LYnchJ.M. Barrie was already a well-known novelist and playwright when he sat down to write his first and only play for children, which he completed and offered to the theater producer Charles Frohman in the spring of 1904. It was unlike anything that had ever been presented to children on the London stage before, but Frohman loved it -- except for the title, which Barrie obligingly changed from The Great White Father to Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up. ("Great White Father" is what Peter is called by Tiger Lily and her companions.) Although it had roots in the British pantomime tradition, Peter Pan was a wholly original concoction blending pirate stories, desert island stories, Indian adventures and fairy tales, all wrapped around a satire of family life in Edwardian London. Frohman took an enormous commercial risk in backing a play of over fifty parts and of actors wired to soar above the stage. No one knew if this preposterous play would work, especially its anxious author. On opening night, Barrie was ill with nerves, holding his breath at the critical moment when Peter asks the audience to clap their hands if they believe in fairies. What if no one clapped at all? But the audience responded with such wild applause that the actress playing Peter burst into tears.

Peter Pan by Alice B. Woodward

The opening of the play in December 1904 is now reckoned as the date of Peter's birth, for it marks the emergence of Peter as we know him, sword in hand and Tinker Bell at his side. Yet he really first appeared two years earlier in Barrie's adult novel The Little White Bird. The novel's narrator is a crusty bachelor who lives close to London's Kensington Gardens, where he meets a small boy and establishes an intense relationship with him. He charms the boy with stories about fairies, and about a run-away baby named Peter Pan who lives among the birds and fairies on an island in the Serpentine Lake.

From JM Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens illustrated by Arthur Rackham 2All babies were once birds, he tells the boy, and they still possess the power of flight. Parents, he warns, must keep their windows shut so that their babies don't fly off at night. Peter Pan is a baby who once heard his mother talk about the life he'd lead when he was grown, prompting him to fly to Kensington Gardens in order to avoid this fate. In the Gardens, he's neither bird nor baby but a creature who is "betwixt and between," glorying in his independence, determined to never grow up. Eventually, however, he tries to go back home, only to find that he's left it much too late. His mother has another baby now, and the nursery windows are firmly locked.

The Little White Bird, like most of Barrie's work, drew inspiration from the author's own life. He too lived close to Kensington Gardens, where he walked with his enormous St. Bernard dog, and where he first became friends with three little boys: George, Jack, and Peter Llewelyn Davies. Barrie held the boys spellbound with tales about magical goings-on in the park at night, when fairies emerged from the hollows of the trees, leaving messages for the boys to find. The first "Peter" in these stories was the real baby Peter, flying off from the Llewelyn Davies nursery to join the fairies' revels at night -- but soon a separate character emerged of the fairy-child Peter Pan, who had once been a human baby, but now lived in the wilds of the park. Barrie was an intensely autobiographical writer, mining his own life for story material to a degree that alternately charmed and exasperated the friends and family members who found themselves rendered into novels and plays. Thus to understand Peter Pan, we must take a closer look at his creator and his complicated relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family.

Baby Peter Flies Over London by Arthur Rackham

Born in Kirriemuir, Scotland in 1860, James Barrie was the frail, unprepossessing seventh child in a family of ten. His father was a hand-loom weaver, and although the family was far from affluent, they were comfortable, and good educations were provided for the Barrie boys. The eldest son, Alexander, graduated from Aberdeen University with first-class honors in Classics; and the next son, David, a brilliant boy, was expected to do even better. James, however, was a dreamy child more interested in games and Penny Dreadfuls (adventure comics) than excelling in academics. David was the acknowledged star of the family -- but when David was thirteen and James was six, David died in a skating accident. Their mother never recovered from this blow, and James spent the rest of his childhood trying to replace the boy she'd lost. He distracted his mother by begging for stories about the Scotland of her childhood (and would later make a good living turning these stories into articles and books). David remained enshrined in memory as the perfect child who never aged or disappointed. "Nothing that happens after we are twelve matters very much," J.M. Barrie wrote many years later.

Yet the years from ages thirteen to eighteen seem to have been the happiest of Barrie's own life, when he left his home and grieving mother to attend Dumfries Academy. Though Dumfries was co-educational, Barrie lived in a masculine world of sports, games, and intense friendships with other boys. He was small and thin, but good at football, cricket, fishing, and other sports, and especially at games of make believe involving pirates, bandits, and other stock characters from the Penny Dreadfuls. These games evolved into a Dramatic Club, establishing Barrie's life long devotion to the theater. He wrote his very first play for the club, a melodrama called Bandelero the Bandit.

J.M. BarrieBarrie knew from quite an early age that he wanted to be a professional writer, but his mother had other plans for him. He was to follow the path that David would have taken to a career in the ministry. Barrie dutifully went off to earn his M.A. at Edinburgh University, where he was miserable. He had been popular among the boys in Dumfries, but at university he was at a loss. He was an odd looking young man, barely five feet tall, and appeared much younger than he was. The women ignored him, and the men embarrassed him with coarse talk about the opposite sex. Barrie retreated into solitude, turning shy and reticent, which were traits he'd retain even when he'd become the most successful writer in Great Britain.

Barrie obliged his parents by completing his degree, but returned home still determined to be a writer, landing a job with the Nottingham Journal and sending submissions off to the London papers. The St. James Gazette began to publish Barrie's stories of Scotland in his mother's day, and with this slim encouragement he moved to London at the age of 24. He went with little money and few contacts, and yet within a very few years Barrie's work was appearing regularly in the top newspapers and journals in the country. He published three books about old Scotland -- Auld Licht Idylls, A Window in Thrums, and The Little Minister -- which turned into surprise best-sellers, elevating him in literary circles and opening society's doors. Barrie's boyhood idol Robert Louis Stevenson proclaimed him to be a writer of genius, and Barrie's circle of friends now included Thomas Hardy, Henry James, William Meredith, Arthur Conan Doyle, and P.G. Wodehouse.

From Peter Pan in Kensington Garden illustrated by Arthur Rackham copy 2

Barrie then turned his hand to writing plays, scoring successes with Ibsen's Ghost and Walker, London. He loved the theater -- and he also loved to flirt with the pretty starlets of the day, although he never went beyond flirting until he met a young woman named Mary Ansell. Mary's career on the stage was undistinguished but she was lively and intelligent, and as the two grew close, the London society papers predicted an engagement. Mary waited while Barrie dithered about her. He worried that he was unsuited to marriage -- as a child he'd even had nightmares about it -- and the notes in his journals from the period show a man who is wracked with doubt. He loved Mary, but did he love her deeply? Was he capable of a steady, adult love? He worried that the answer was no, but hoped that the act of marriage would mature him -- so he proposed to Mary, married her in Scotland, and took her off on a Swiss honeymoon. The honeymoon was not a success, and Mary later referred to it as "a shock." Barrie's biographers suspect (as did many of his friends) that the marriage was never consummated -- for he seems to have been an entirely asexual man, incapable of physical passion. In a journal entry recorded during his honeymoon he makes this note for a scene in a future play:

Wife-Have you given me up? Have nothing to do with me?
Husband calmly kind, no passion & c. (à la self)

When the couple returned to London, Mary busied herself with their new house and dog, while Barrie retreated into his study and got back to work. He produced new stories, new plays, a sentimental biography of his mother -- and then began Tommy and Grizel, considered by many to be his finest novel. It's the tragic story of Tommy, a writer, who is married to his childhood friend Grizel. The marriage is not a happy one, for there's something vital lacking in Tommy -- he cannot love Grizel, or anyone else, in a physical way (or so the text implies without stating his lack of sexuality directly). He's not like other men, Tommy tries to explain, he's really just a boy who has never grown up. Barrie writes, "She knew that, despite all he had gone through, he was still a boy. And boys cannot love. Oh, is it not cruel to ask a boy to love?"

Peter Pan by Scott Gustafson

As Barrie's biographers have remarked, one can only imagine what Mary thought when she read passages like this in print, realizing that anything she said or did might be turned into story material. But if Mary minded, she didn't show it. She carefully, dutifully kept up the public appearance of a perfectly normal marriage. There were compensations. She was wealthy now, and her husband was a celebrated man. If she didn't have his passion, and couldn't have his children, at least she had as much of Barrie's affection and attention as he had to give until, in 1897, she began to lose even that.

Arthur Llewelyn Davies and sonsFor it was in 1897 that Barrie became acquainted with the three little boys in Kensington Gardens: five-year-old George, four-year-old Jack, and baby brother Peter, who came to play in the park each day attended by their nanny. They talked about cricket, pirates, and fairies; he dazzled them by the way he could wiggle his ears; and before long, Barrie was meeting up with boys on a regular basis. He had always found it easier to make friends with children than he did adults. They didn't mind his moods, his long silences; they enjoyed his black humor and quirky stories, and accepted him as an overgrown boy rather than as one of the grown-ups.

On New Year's Eve, the Barries attended an elegant dinner party where Barrie was seated beside the beautiful wife of a young barrister. He soon discovered, to his astonishment, that this was Sylvia Llewelyn Davies, the mother of his friends George, Jack, and Peter -- while she discovered, with equal amazement, that the mysterious man who could wiggle his ears was the famous author J.M. Barrie.

Sylvia and Michael Llewyln DaviesSylvia was no stranger to fame herself, for her father was George du Maurier, illustrator for Punch magazine and author of the novel Trilby (which introduced Svengali to the world); her brother Gerald was a well-known actor; and her husband Arthur was the son of John Llewelyn Davies, a prominent theologian. Sylvia was charmed by Barrie's enthusiasm for her beloved boys, and invited him to visit them at home -- which he promptly did, reappearing there with increasing regularity.

Soon Barrie was a fixture in Sylvia's household -- to the chagrin of her husband Arthur, who could not fathom why this strange little Scotsman was so constantly underfoot, and of Mary Barrie, disconcerted by this new focus in her husband's life. Neither Arthur nor Mary had cause to believe that Sylvia and Barrie had embarked on an affair (and Mary, especially, knew how impossible this was), but the intensity of Barrie's interest in Sylvia's boys raised more than a few eyebrows. Sylvia, however, found nothing strange in it. Completely in love with her handsome husband, she saw nothing compromising in accepting Barrie's friendship, and nothing odd in his devotion to her darling sons. She pushed Arthur's objections aside, and Arthur learned to hold his tongue, accepting Barrie's presence in their lives with as much stoicism as he could muster. Barrie's wife, for her part, made a point of befriending Sylvia and coped as best she could with the awkward fact that her husband was engrossed in the lives of another woman's children.

The question inevitably rises in relation to Barrie's involvement with the Llewelyn Davies boys whether he was a pedophile, or had repressed pedophilic tendencies. Nico Llewelyn Davies, the youngest of the boys, when asked about this after Barrie's death, dismissed the idea categorically. "I don't believe that Uncle Jim ever experienced what one might call 'a stirring in the undergrowth' for anyone -- man, woman, or child," said Nico. "He was an innocent -- which is why he could write Peter Pan." Writer Andrew Birkin, who spent three years researching Barrie's life for his BBC television program The Lost Boys, interviewed many who had known J.M. Barrie and conducted an extensive correspondence with Nico. Nothing he read or heard indicated that Barrie had a sexual interest in the boys. "Barrie was impotent, it's fairly clear," says Birkin (on the DVD edition of his program). "That was the tragedy of his life. Had he not been impotent, I think he would have been a womanizer — he was always falling in love with his leading ladies over the stage lights. The suggestion that he was somehow pedophilic with these boys doesn't really stand up to close examination."

George  John  and Peter Llewyn Davies

In 1900, Sylvia gave birth to Michael, who would grow to be Barrie's favorite of her sons — but for now it was still George, the eldest, who was the child closest to his heart. Barrie's novel The Little White Bird (1902) is transparently based upon his relationship with George. Captain W., the novel's protagonist, meets a charming little boy in Kensington Gardens, and he sets out to win the affections of both the boy and his beautiful mother.

Barrie and his dog PorthosLike much of Barrie's fiction, the novel is too sentimental to suite most modern tastes (though saved by the delicious bite of Barrie's humor), and the intensity of the narrator's obsession with the boy makes for uncomfortable reading in our less innocent age. But this tribute to children and childhood was exactly suited to the temper of its day. "To speak in sober earnest," proclaimed the London Times, "this is one of the best things that Barrie has written….If a book exists that contains more knowledge and more love of children, we do not know it." George was proud of inspiring the novel (even though it earned him teasing from his school fellows), and Sylvia loved it. What Arthur and Mary felt about the book is not recorded.

In 1903, Sylvia became pregnant with Nicholas (called Nico), her fifth and final child. The day before Nico's birth, Barrie started work on Peter Pan. Unlike baby Peter in The Little White Bird, this Peter would be an older boy who lived in distant Never Land (called Neverland or Never-never Land in some editions), where he'd have the adventures that Barrie had so often play-acted with Sylvia's children. Barrie set the first scene in the Darling house on a shabby street in Bloomsbury -- "but you may dump it down anywhere you like," he wrote, "and if you think it was your house, you are very probably right." The beautiful Mrs. Darling was modeled on Sylvia, and the perfidious Mr. Darling, rather unfairly, on Arthur. Barrie later explained to the Llewelyn Davies boys that Peter was made "by rubbing the five of you violently together, as savages with two sticks produce flame. That it is all he is, the spark I got from you."

Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Other sparks came from Scottish fairy stories -- which Barrie would have heard or read in his youth, particularly as he was a fan of the writer and folklore enthusiast Sir Walter Scott. The fairy stories that he drew upon, however, weren't sugar-sweet Victorian confections about tiny butterfly-winged sprites, but older, darker stories about the dangerous fairies of the Scottish folk tradition. In these tales, seductive, heartless fairies lure children into the fairy realm, an enchanted world that lies at the heart of the woods, or underneath the Scottish hills. Time passes differently in that realm. A single night spent with the fairies might be a hundred years in human time -- so when the children go back home again, their parents are dead and gone.

Peter Pan by Michael HagueIn changeling tales, the fairies snatch infants and pretty children from their beds, whisking them off to fairyland as pampered pets, companions, or slaves. Sometimes a fairy is left behind, glamored to look like the stolen child: a bad-tempered, sickly, hungry creature who is a plague to the human parents. The lost children in changeling tales don't always find their way back home. Sometimes they stay under the hills, losing all memory of the mortal world -- just as John and Michael Darling forget their parents while living in Never Land.

Barrie's Peter Pan is human-born, not a fairy, but he's lived in Never Land so long that he's as much a fairy as he is a boy: magical, capricious, and amoral, like the fairies of the old Scots tradition. 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. He is a classic trickster character -- kin to Puck, Robin Goodfellow, and other delightful but exasperating sprites of fairy lore. He's a liminal creature, standing on the threshold between fairy and child, mortal and immortal, villain (when he lures children from their homes) and hero (when he rescues them from pirates).

Peter Pan and Captain Hook by Michael Hague

Peter'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.

Peter playing the pipes by Michael HagueIn the ancient writings of Servius we find this detailed description: Pan is "formed in the likeness of nature with horns to resemble the rays of the sun and the horns of the moon; his face is ruddy in the imitation of ether; he wears a spotted fawn skin resembling the stars in the sky; his lower limbs are hairy because of the trees and the wild beasts; he has the feet of a goat to resemble the stability of the earth; his pipe has seven reeds in accordance with the harmony of heaven; his pastoral staff bears a crook in reference to the pastoral year which curves back on itself; and finally he is the god of all nature." Pan's young namesake does not have goat legs or horns, but he does ride on the back of a goat, and he plays the pan-pipes, an instrument Pan invented from hollow reeds.

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.)

Wendy by Scott Gustafson

Barrie added three girls to Peter's story (over the Llewelyn Davies boys' initial objection): Wendy Darling, the fairy Tinker Bell, and the Indian princess Tiger Lily. "Wendy" was a nonexistent name at the time. It came from a child named Margaret Henley who referred to Barrie as her "friendy" -- but she couldn't pronounce her "f"s and "r"s, and so the word came out as "Wendy". (Due entirely to Barrie's play, Wendy soon became a popular name for little girls.) Tinker Bell was originally called Tippy in the earliest drafts of the play, and Tiger Lily's tribe is called the Piccaninnies -- a name mercifully left out of modern renditions. (Barrie's Indians are fantasy Indians, "savages" imagined by Edwardian children, and have as much to do with actual Indians as Nanna the dog has to do with actual nannies.)

Captain Hook comes directly from the make-believe games that Barrie played with George and his brothers, as well as from the pirates in the Penny Dreadfuls that Barrie loved as a child. Hook was first portrayed on the London stage by Gerald du Maurier (Sylvia's brother), who brought such menace to the role that children were carried screaming from the stalls. "How he was hated," recalled his daughter, the novelist Daphne du Maurier, "with his flourish, his poses, his dreaded diabolical smile! That ashen face, those blood-red lips, the long, dank, greasy curls; the sardonic laugh, the maniacal scream, the appalling courtesy of his gestures." Hook's villainy was never entirely played for laughs -- he was allowed to be a truly menacing figure, saving the role from pure camp and adding gravity to Peter's story.

Captain Hook and the Crocodile by David Wyatt

While Barrie was busy with the enormous task of making this extravagant fantasia work on stage, Arthur Llewelyn Davies made a sudden move and relocated his family to Berhamsted, twenty-five miles away from London. Barrie still came to visit them, but he could no longer be a daily presence. Instead, he wrote wistful letters to the boys as he hovered anxiously around the theater, watching his actors learn to fly and Peter Pan come to life. Peter himself was played by a young starlet (Nina Boucicault in the first London production, Maude Adams in New York) -- largely because of labor laws preventing child actors from working after 9 pm, but also because of the British pantomime tradition in which the Principal Boy was always played by a girl. Great secrecy surrounded the Peter Pan rehearsals, which of course made the press and the public all the more eager to learn what Barrie had up his sleeve. 

On opening night (December 27, 1904), Sylvia and the boys came into town to accompany the nervous author to the theater. Back in New York, producer Charles Frohman waited to learn if he had a hit or a disaster. Finally a cable came. Peter Pan was an overwhelming success. The critics were charmed, and (more importantly to Barrie) an audience full of children had been enthralled. So many little children were injured, however, by going home and jumping from the furniture that he hastily rewrote the opening scene to explain that fairy dust was required to fly.

The announcement of the first performance of Peter Pan

With this new success, Barrie was busier than ever. He visited Sylvia and the boys as often as his schedule would allow -- but the family was happily settled in Berkhamsted, and Barrie was busy back in London with new stories, new plays, and a variety of political and charitable causes.

Then, in 1906, disaster struck. Arthur was diagnosed with cancer, requiring an operation that would remove half of his jaw and palate. Barrie was immediately at his side, dropping everything to put himself at Arthur's assistance, as well as quietly picking up the cost of his expensive medical treatment. When the operation was completed, Arthur's face was a ruin and he could barely speak. Barrie remained posted at his bedside -- nursing him, reading to him, conversing with him (as Arthur slowly communicated by writing). Arthur found Barrie kinder and wiser than he expected, and the relationship between the two men changed. When Arthur came home from the hospital, Barrie was a welcome (and necessary) presence in the household. The two families spent their summer holidays together, and everyone insisted that Arthur was getting better, but by autumn the tumor had spread, and by the following spring, Arthur was dead.

The Lost Boys by Trina Schart HymanArthur left little money behind, so now Barrie took over the family's support. He had earned a small fortune from Peter Pan and insisted it was theirs as much as his. Sylvia brought the family back to London, to a house near Barrie and Kensington Gardens. "And here, I think, Sylvia did succeed, gradually, in regaining something of the zest for life," wrote Peter Llewelyn Davies, years later, about his mother. "The boys were a fond amusement and distraction for her, relatives came frequently, and the dog-like J.M.B. still living at Leinster Corner and in constant attendance… Everything must have been done, by all who had the care of us and above all by Sylvia herself, to shut out the imp of sorrow and self-pity from our young lives."

From Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens  illustrated by Arthur Rackham

Daily life went on. Barrie continued to write, and Peter Pan continued to cast its spell, becoming the most famous of Barrie's works. The tale of Peter Pan as a baby, originally published in The Little White Bird, was now available in a separate children's book edition, called Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, with illustrations by Arthur Rackham. The script of the play was published under the title Peter Pan, the Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up; and eventually Barrie novelized the story of the play in a book titled Peter and Wendy. He ended this volume with a brand new scene in which 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 daughter, Jane. The girl examines Peter with interest, and soon she's off to Never Land herself where her mother can no longer go, no matter how much she longs to follow.

Flying Above London by Scott Gustafson

Meanwhile, Barrie's relationship with the Llewelyn Davies family took its inevitable toll on his marriage, and he learned that his wife was having an affair with a young writer named Gilbert Cannan. He begged Mary to break it off, but this she had no intention of doing. Cannon had pledged to marry her, and she wanted a divorce. Barrie disappeared to Switzerland while the scandal raged in the London papers, then returned to London in October for the ordeal of the divorce proceedings. Two days after the case was over, Sylvia collapsed at home. Now she, too, was diagnosed with cancer, in a form impossible to treat. As was the practice of the time, she was not allowed to know how ill she was, though as the illness went on and on and on, she suspected that she was dying. She remained in bed until the following spring, seemed to be improve a little in the summer, and insisted on taking her sons on a fishing holiday to Devon. While the boys fished, she grew weaker and weaker. The children were not told she was dying. She passed away on August 27th, with her mother and Barrie in the room, and Barrie was left to break the news to the boys as they returned from the river.

Barrie now assumed all responsibility for the boys. The elder three were at Eton by this time, where their school fees had long been paid by Barrie, but Michael and Nico remained at home supervised by their nanny, Mary Hodgson, with Barrie living close by. Barrie was now an extremely wealthy man and he lavished money on his young wards -- on clothes, books, sports equipment, and extravagant summer holidays; nothing was too good for them that might the ease the grief of losing their parents. Michael was the most like Barrie of all the boys -- a dreamy, fey, creative child, and Michael was as excessively attached to Barrie as Barrie was to him. At Eton, Michael wrote to Barrie every day. There were more than two thousand letters between them -- most of them later burned by Peter (the family archivist), who was embarrassed by their sentimentality.

Arthur Rackham  from JM Barrie's Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens

Barrie's literary star continued to rise, and he was awarded a baronetcy in 1913 in recognition of his status as one of the best loved authors in Britain. George started university that year, where he remained on close terms with his guardian, but Jack, who was in the Navy now, and more independent than his brothers, resented the dominant role that Barrie had taken in their lives. The following year, Barrie took all of the boys except Jack to Scotland for a fishing holiday (Jack was on a ship in the North Atlantic), and it was there that they learned the news that England was now at war with Germany. George and Peter, like so many young men, immediately signed up to defend their country, and by December George's battalion was posted to the Western Front. With The Little White Bird packed in his kit-bag, he departed for the trenches of France, sending fond and cheerful letters back to Barrie and urging him not to worry. In March, George sent a letter from the Front saying, "Keep your heart up, Uncle Jim, & remember how good an experience this is for a chap who's been very idle before. Lord, I shall be proud when I'm home again, & talking to you about all this. That old dinner at the Savoy will be pretty grand…." By the time the letter reached London, George Llewelyn Davies had been shot and killed.

Captain Hook & Peter by Scott Gustavson"I have lost all sense I ever had of war being glorious," Barrie wrote in one of his last letters to George, "it is just unspeakably monstrous to me now." Sylvia's brother Gerald (the original Captain Hook) also died that year in the mud of France; and Charles Frohman drowned shortly thereafter in the sinking of the Lusitania. Barrie despaired, fearing the war would swallow everything and everyone he loved -- but peace was declared before Michael came of age, and Jack and Peter came safely home. Peter never fully recovered from horrors he witnessed at the Front; he struggled with depression for the rest of his life, and died by suicide many years later. For now, however, life went on. Jack married a girl he'd met while stationed in Scotland. Nico, the youngest, left home for Eton. Michael started at Oxford University, where he cut a dazzling figure. His close friend (and probable lover) Roger Stenhouse introduced him into Lytton Strachey's Bloomsbury set, where Strachey pronounced him "the only young man at Oxford or Cambridge with real brains." Michael was handsome, brilliant, a gifted writer, and seemed to have the world before him. And just before his twenty-first birthday, he drowned in a boating accident.

Peter Pan in Scarlet by David WyattLike his mother, undone by the death of her son David, Barrie never fully recovered from Michael's loss, particularly since it came on the heels of losing Arthur, Sylvia, George, Gerald du Maurier, and Charles Frohman. He aged visibly, and for a long while barely had the will to go on living. But go on he did, supported by his affection for his three remaining "Lost Boys," and eventually for their children too -- a brand new audience to charm with stories of pirates, Indians, and fairies. He continued to write, to socialize, to travel, to stay active in charitable and political causes, until he died in 1937, with Peter and Nico at his bedside. "To die will be an awfully big adventure," Barrie once wrote in the voice of Peter Pan. In his will, he left the Peter Pan royalties to the Great Ormond Street Hospital for Children.

When Barrie commissioned the Peter Pan stature by Sir George Frampton that stands in Kensington Gardens to this day, he hoped it would allow Peter to be remembered long after his play was forgotten. But one hundred years later, Peter is just as popular as ever, and there are few children who don't know his story -- through picture books, or the Disney animation and other films, if not directly from Barrie's play or the pages of Peter and Wendy.

Peter Pan statue in Kensington Gardens by Sir George FramptonPeter's story has inspired several works of fiction for both children and adults (see the Further Reading list below), and Barrie's life has inspired two dramatic productions: the excellent BBC television series The Lost Boys, and the film Finding Neverland.

Finding Neverland is a charming but heavily fictionalized concoction, playing fast-and-loose with the facts of Barrie's life in order to tell a simpler, more romantic story. Here, Arthur is conveniently dead before Barrie meets Sylvia, and Sylvia's mother is turned into a villain, attempting to keep Barrie and Sylvia apart. The boys are reduced from five in number to four, and are portrayed as older when they first meet Barrie. (In real life, Peter was just a baby.) In the film, it's Peter (not the eldest, George) who is portrayed as Barrie's special friend; and Peter again (not the middle boy, Michael) who shares Barrie's dreamy temperament and interest in writing. The biggest change is that handsome, charismatic Johnny Depp plays the part of the Scottish playwright, depicting him as a gentle, fey dreamer, rather than the odd little sharp-edged man that he actually was. But the movie has moments of magic, the period sets and costumes are lovely, and overall it is worth seeing, provided it's taken with many grains of salt.

Peter Pan by Charles VessAndrew Birkin's television series The Lost Boys, on the other hand, is specifically based on the known facts of J.M. Barrie's life, drawn from a vast array of surviving journals, correspondence, manuscripts, and photographs, as well as extensive interviews with those had known James Barrie. The last of the Lost Boys, Nico Llewelyn Davies, read and advised on Birkin's script -- and when the final production was broadcast, Llewelyn Davies phoned up Birkin in tears, "undone," he said, by the way actor Ian Holm had turned into his Uncle Jim. (The series is available on DVD, and I highly recommend it. I also recommend Birkin's web site, where he generously makes a treasure trove of Barrie material -- journals, letters, story notes, photographs, etc. -- freely available to fans and scholars.)

James M. Barrie was a boy who couldn't grow up, and out of this conundrum he gave us Peter, the boy who wouldn't grow up -- a character so vivid, so universal, and so emotionally true that he seems to belong to folklore now, not to one author's imagination. One hundred years later, children still dream of flying off with Peter to Never Land, where they'll never bathe, or eat broccoli, or (the worst fate of all) have to turn from children into grown-ups.

Some years ago I knew a little boy who referred to adults, like me, as human beings. "Aren't you a human being too?" I asked.

With a look of scorn for the stupidity of my question, he answered, "I'm not a human, I'm a child."

When I pointed out that one day he would grow up to be a human too, he shook his head and insisted, "No. I'm going to stay a boy."

J.M. Barrie would have perfectly understood the desire to stay a child forever -- and advised him to keep his window open, so that Peter Pan could find him.

Peter Pan in Scarlet by David Wyatt

Credits: The art comes from a variety of sources and is credited in the pictures captions. (Run your cursor over the images to see the captions.) All rights to the art and text above reserved by the artists and author.

Some further reading, nonfiction: J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys by Andrew Birkin (Yale University Press reprint, 2003), J.M. Barrie: The Man Behind the Image by Janet Dunbar (Collins, 1970), The Peter Pan Chronicles by Bruce K. Hanson (Carol Publishing, 1993), "The Boy Who Couldn't Grow Up: James Barrie" by Alison Lurie (in Don't Tell the Grown-ups, Back Bay Books reprint, 1998), Barrie: The Story of J.M.B. by Denis Mackail (Ayer Co. reprint, 1977), Gateway to the Modern: Resituating J.M. Barrie, edited by Bold & Nash (Scottish Literature International, 2014). and Letters of James M. Barrie by Viola Meynell (Norwood Editions, 1942).

Some further reading, fiction: Peter Pan & the Only Children by Gilbert Adair (Dutton, 1988), Peter and the Starcatchers by Dave Barry (Disney Editions, 2004), The Lost Girls by Laurie Fox (Simon & Schuster, 2004), Second Star to the Right by Mary Alice Kruesi (Avon, 1999), Peter Pan in Scarlet by Geraldine McCaughrean (Oxford University Press, 2007), After the Rain by J. Emily Somma (Daisy Books, 2003), and Wendy by Karen Wallace (Simon & Schuster, 2004).


Life as bird

Arthur Rackham 1

In his introduction to Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children's Literature, Irish ecologist and poet Liam Heneghan writes this touching passage about the imaginative connection between children, birds, and animals:

Arthur Rackham 2"Newly arrived in the United States and setting foot on the red soils of Georgia for the very first time, Fiacha, our eldest and then a three-year-old, perched himself on top of a fire ant mound. It's a rare child who makes that mistake a second time since fire ants sting ferociously. We had moved into a small ranch house a few miles from the campus of the University of Georgia in Athens, where I was to work for four years. The house was aesthetically unremarkable. There were parched lawns to the front and rear, both of which hosted innumerable fire ant mounds. In the front yard, right outside the door, grew two desiccated shrubs. What that neighborhood lacked in conventional wildlife it made up for with feral dogs. They howled all night and packed together in the morning, leisurely hunting the neighborhood for those who, like me, were foolish enough to go walking in the early hours. It was in this unpromising location that Fiacha -- an Irish name that means 'raven,' and whose second name is Daedalus, the father of Icarus -- became a bird.

Arthur Rackham 3

"The care and feeding of a bird who is morphologically and physically human, though psychologically somewhat avian, is not an entirely trivial undertaking. While he was in motion, there was little inconvenience to us -- he simply flapped his featherless wings as he migrated from place to place.

Arthur Rackham 4"He was something of a restless bird: now in the living room, now the kitchen, and now perched in his bedroom. Whenever and wherever he perched, the primaries on his wings would tremble, occasionally he would ruffle the length of his wings, and, at times, he would fold them back and tuck them close to his little body. We learned to live with the concerned glances of strangers. Feeding time could be a little strenuous, although we could entice him with shredded morsels that he would grab by his 'beak' and toss back into his mouth. Sometimes he would disappear from the house, and after those initial panicked occasions where we searched high and low for him, we knew he could be found sequestered in one of those forlorn-looking shrubs in the front yard. He would cling to a lower branch, peering out at the world through the patchy foliage. At least he was safely out of the reach of the packs of dogs and of the fire ants.

"In those early years, we read a lot about birds, looked at a lot of birds, and drew a lot of birds; and by sketching birds on folded pieces of paper and then cutting them out, we made innumerable models of birds. It lead to a later interest of his in dinosaurs, then aircraft, then military history, after which there was another thousand twists and turns in his interests. That bird now studies philosophy, but he remains an avid birder. He admitted to me recently that he occasionally writes with a quill. To this day if you look at him long enough, you may still spot his flight feathers flutter ever so slightly, even on windless afternoons."

Arthur Rackham 5

Heneghan goes on to explain that Beasts at Bedtime was written for the parents, teachers, librarians and guardians of children who might think they are birds:

Arthur Rackham 6"It's possible, of course, and not at all uncommon, that your child might assume themselves to be a cat or a dog; this is a book for those families also. It's also for the family of a child I've learned of recently who alternates between a crocodile, a rhino, and a snake. When she was quite young, a friend imagined herself to be a gorilla. A child of another friend thinks he is a deep-sea shrimp that scares predators who get too close by squirting out a glowing substance. He alternates this with being a porcupine. You should give this child wide berth....

"Some children do not identify with being any animal other than the higher primates they already are. The stories that I write about here will be instructive to guardians of these children also, for it is a rare child who is not already inclined to nature.

"Central to the task of caring for your little creature is to create the most nurturing environment for them. This, quite obviously, is not as simple as attending to their peculiar physical needs. It requires a careful tending to their spirits. This later task can be assisted by the stories you tell and read to them. To help with the task, this book is intended to illustrate the thematic richness of children's stories. There is a surprising depth of environmental information in many of the titles that children find immensely appealing." 

Arthur Rackham 7

Heneghan's text covers pastoral stories, wilderness stories, urban stories, and "children on wild islands" -- ranging from fairy and folk tales to Peter Rabbit and Pooh -- and then onward to White's Forest Sauvage, Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Le Guin's Earthsea, and much more. I loved re-visiting favorite tales through the eyes of an ecosystem ecologist, and heartily recommend this charming, informative, bird-filled and beastly book.

Arthur Rackham 8

Beasts at Bedtime by Liam Heneghan

Arthur Rackham 9

Words: The passage quoted above is from Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children's Literature by Liam Heneghan (University of Chicago Press, 2018). All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The illustrations above are by the great Golden Age book artist Arthur Rackham (1867-1939), from editions of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens by J.M. Barrie, The Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Aesop's Fables, and Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

Related posts: Kissing the Lion's Nose (on children and animals) and Finding the way to the green (on children and nature).


Nature, gnomes, and the power of story

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Michael McCarthy begins his beautiful book The Moth Snowstorm with these arresting two sentences: "In the summer of 1954, when Winston Churchill was dwindling into his dotage as British prime minister, the beaten French were withdrawing from Indochina, and Elvis Presley was beginning to sing, my mother's mind fell apart. I was seven and my brother John was eight."

Blending nature writing, ecological history, and memoir, The Moth Snowstorm is narrated in a lucid prose that makes my heart sing even though the story it tells is filled with loss: of family, of innocence, of the natural world McCarthy once in knew in the Wirral near Liverpool. His mother, Norah, had trained as a teacher; his father, Jack, was largely away at sea. When Nora's mind "began to fray" under the weight of her troubles, the stern Canon at their Catholic church recommended her removal to a mental institution, from which (as was usual in those days) no one expected her to return. In fact, she came home just a few months later -- but by then McCarthy's bossy aunt Mary had sold off her sister's home, and taken her two young nephews in charge. John, the eldest, responded to the dramatic break-up of their family with rage and tears, while Michael retreated into indifference. He writes:

"At seven years old, I was not in the least bit concerned that I had lost my mother. How bizarre that seems, written down. Many years on, when I began to talk about it, to try to sort it all out, I learned that this was a Coping Strategy. Golly, I thought. Did I have a Coping Strategy? All I remember having is nothing. Being not bothered, not in the slightest, that she had gone away with no promise of return; and this attitude slumbered inside me through childhood, adolescence and long into manhood, until my mother died, my mother with whom I had by now built bridges and come to adore before all others...and the life I had blithely put together on top of the gaping cracks, pretending they were not there, began to unravel and I set out on the long road to somewhere else."

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Aunt Mary and her husband lived in the suburbs. In a nearby garden was a buddleia, and on a late summer morning young Michael found it entirely covered with butterflies: red admirals, peacocks, small tortoiseshells, and painted ladies.

"I was mesmerised. My eyes caressed their colours like a hand stroking a kitten. How could there be such living gems? And every morning in that hot but fading summer, as my mother suffered silently and my brother cried out, I ran to check on them, never tiring of watching these free-flying spirits with wings as bright as flags which the buddleia seemed miraculously to tame, to keep from visiting other flowers, to enslave on its own blooms by its nectar's unfathomable power. I could smell it myself, honey-sweet, but with the faintest hint of a sour edge. Drawing them in, the wondrous visitants. Wondrous? Electrifying, they were. Filling the space where my feelings should have been. And so through this singular window, when I was a skinny kid in short pants, butterflies entered my soul."

Mary obligingly bought him a guidebook to butterflies, and his interest grew from enthusiasm to obsession. Reflecting on this many years later, McCarthy accepts the strangeness of the circumstance, "that it was in a time of great turmoil, involving great unhappiness, that I first became attached to nature; that while my boyhood bond with my mother was being rent asunder, I was preoccupied with insects.

Two illustrations by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I might have become a lifelong butterfly obsessive," McCarthy adds, "narrowly and compulsively  preoccupied to the exclusion of all else, like Frederick Clegg in John Fowles' The Collector, had not my mother show me a way to a wider world."

Two illustrations by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Norah was released from the mental hospital that autumn, but it was more than a year before the family had a home of their own again. To mark this new beginning, McCarthy's mother, a devotee of literature, gave him a book. 

"It was a Christmas present that year, prompted I imagine by my butterfly enthusiasm; but whereas Mary might have found me another book on Lepidoptera, Norah chose something else, and I wonder now what sure instinct led her to this, the first real story I encountered, with fully formed characters and a narrative; for I engaged with it at once.

The Little Grey Men"It was an epic, in the old-fashioned, precise sense of the term: a long account of heroic adventures. But it was not large-scale, in the way that The Iliad and The Odyssey are large-scale epics, mainly because its heroes were gnomes. It was called The Little Grey Men, and its author signed himself merely by initials, BB; his real name was Denys Watkins-Pitchford, although it was years before I found this out.

"I was from the first page lost in the world of its principal characters, Dodder, Baldmoney, and Sneezewort (all named after rather uncommon English wild flowers). They were very small people, between a foot and eighteen inches tall, with long flowing beards; Dodder, the oldest, had a wooden leg. But they were different from the sort of gnomes you might expect to come across in the genre of High Fantasy which has so obsessed us in recent years, in Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings and their imitators. They had no magical powers. They were grounded not in fantasy but in realism. Although they were able to converse with the wild creatures around them -- the author's one concession to the idea of gnomic difference -- they lived, and struggled to live, in the world just as we do, concerned about finding enough food and keeping warm. But there was more: they were a dying race. They were last gnomes left in England.

Two illustrations for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I remember the shiver I experienced when I first read those words. I think it was an inchoate sense, even in a boy of eight, of the transfixing nature of the end of things. It was clear that they could not survive the creeping urbanisation and modernisation of agriculture which even then was starting to spread across the countryside. They were anachronisms. The world had moved on from them: like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, their time was done. So much the braver, then, their decision to undertake a great adventure, to make an expedition to find their long-lost brother Cloudberry -- ah, Cloudberry! So sad! -- who had never returned after setting out one day to discover the source of the small Warwickshire river, the Folly Brook, on the banks of which they lived, in the capacious roots of an old oak tree.

An illustration for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

"I was wholly captivated by their quest, and by its unexpected denouement; I was likewise captivated by Down the Bright Stream, the sequel, which I asked for and was given for Christmas the following year. (In the second book, the gnomes' existential crisis reaches its climax; they address it in a most original way, ultimately successful.) But I took in more than the story. I internalised, at first reading, the milieu in which the adventure took place. It was the very opposite of the milieu of The Lord of the Rings, with its dark lords and wizards, its fortresses and mountains, its vast clashing armies; it was merely Warwickshire, leafy Warwickshire, Shakespeare's country, and the Folly Brook, with its kingfishers and otters and minnows,  and its kestrels hovering above,  a small and intimate and charming countryside with its small and intimate and charming creatures, vivid in their lives and their interactions; and I fell in love with them, and I fell in love with the natural world.

"I went beyond butterflies to the fullness of nature."

An illustration for Little Grey Men by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

I have long believed that stories, particularly fantasy stories, are a powerful way to engage children with nature. Through the wonder at the heart of the tale, we find the wonder at the heart of the world. I didn't know The Little Grey Men when I was a child, but other books had the same effect on me -- from Beatrix Potter's Lake District farms and Johanna Spyri's Swiss mountaintops to the enchanted vistas of Lewis and Tolkien, and, later, of Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Diana Wynne Jones, Patricia McKillip and Ursula Le Guin, among others. While McCarthy was drawn to the "realism" and intimacy of The Little Grey Men, reflective of the countryside he knew in the England of the 1950s, I grew up in the rapacious urban and suburban development of east coast America in the '60s and '70s, and preferred stories that took me to other worlds -- where landscapes were vast, majestic, unfenced, unpolluted, with nary a car or strip mall in sight. In real life I hustled through time-fractured days mediated by cars and buses, subways and trains; but in fiction, I moved at a walker's pace through Middle Earth, Eldwold, Prydain, Dalemark, Tredana, Islandia and the Earthsea Archipelago; and those long journeys immersed in the natural world were just as vital as the adventures themselves. Can the forests and fields of imaginary lands nurture a connection to, and even a love for, the flora and fauna and the waterways and the ground underfoot that we see everyday? I believe they can. And more than that, in this time of ecological crisis, I believe that they must.

What are stories that made that connection for you, fantasy or otherwise? And were the landscapes as important to you as the characters and the unrolling plot? I'm curious to know your thoughts.

Illustration by Denys Watkins-Pitchford

Words: The passages above are from The Moth Snowstorm: Nature and Joy by Michael McCarthy (New York Review of Books edition, 2015), which I highly recommend. All rights reserved by the author.

Pictures: The art above is by Denys James Watkins-Pitchford (1905 -1990), a naturalist, teacher, book illustrator, and author of children's fiction under the pseudonym BB. He won the Carnegie Medal for Children's Literature in 1942.


Kissing the lion's nose

Painting by Lucy Campbell

Here are more reflections on children and the wild from Jay Griffiths' brilliant book Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape:

"That children love animals is a manifest truth, and they also seek love from them. So crucial are animals to children's happiness that in a significant UNICEF study of childhood well-being children specified that pets were one of the top four most important things for their happiness. 'I want a kitten...a puppy...a horse,' children clamor for years, and this is perhaps only the most audible part of their love. Children talk wordlessly to their pets, taking a dog in their arms or, upset, burying their faces in a cat's fur and crying. They whisper secrets to their pets and feel understood by them. Children want to talk with the animals, eat with them, curl up with them and think with them, for children intuitively understand that animals are guides for the mind in metaphor-making."

Paintings by Lucy Campbell

Upon the Glowing Gloom by Lucy Campbell

"Children's authors, peopling their books with animals, know that children are fascinated by tales of crossing the species-fences, and the stories work carnally, suggesting a nuzzling sensuality, fostering a child's animal nature and answering a longing deep within children to be suckled by earthmilk, pressing their faces into the warm flank of horse, lion or wolf, breathing in the spicy messageful air of animals, falling asleep in their paws.

"Aslan. To run your fingers through his golden mane, to see 'the great, royal, solemn, overwhelming eyes,' to feel that humming, purring warmth and its ferocious power; 'whether it was more like playing with a thunderstorm or playing with a kitten,' the children cannot say. The writer Francis Spufford recalls a tender trespass of his childhood when he was suddenly seized with the desire for Aslan and reached his face up to a poster of the lion on his bedroom wall. Stealthily, heartfeltedly, he kissed the lion's nose. From early childhood, I remember that feeling, wanting to nudge myself into the musk and silage, the mushroom, rust and grass of an animal's den, wanting to know with my whole body the felt world of fur and pawpads and to feel the animal world in its fullness, its yawls, hackles and green-scent, to be batted by the paws of the furred earth, my senses drunk with it, living in the whiskey of animality. And to kiss the lion's nose.

Paintings by Lucy Campbell

Belonging by Lucy Campell

"There's a fox in the garden. Those words would thrill us to the core. My brothers and I would crowd to the window in pressed silence, breathless, excited and honored that something so wild might bestow on us for a flickering moment its feral presence. Birds and animals come into our lives as 'guests,' say Mohawk tales, and people must treat them well....Animal-helpers snuffle in the hedges of fairy tales and they feather the tree-tops with bird-advice. In the nick of time, the winged lion or armored bear swerve into stories. If the fairy tale hero treats an animal kindly, it offers its skills, pecking out grain or tracking a scent beyond human guesswork.

"Creatures are friends to the psyche of a child. When Henry Old Coyote, from the Crow nation, was a boy, his grandfather would wake him early to listen to the birds and encouraged the child to know the exuberant joy of this bird medicine and to keep it inside him all day. I'm told that in Tamil Nadu, India, a child suffering nightmares may be cured by walking under an elephant's belly, being blessed by Ganesh. The nightmares, knowing better than to contend with an elephant, beat a retreat."

Bear With Boy by Lucy Cambell

" 'In the old days the animals and the people were very much the same...They thought the same way and felt the same way. They understood each other,' says Simon Tookoome, an Inuit elder, recalling a belief common to many indigenous cultures. As a child, he adopted animals, including a caribou which followed him everywhere like a dog, and, at different times, five wolves."

Painting by Lucy Campbell

"One strange peculiarity of modern childhood in the West is its estrangement from the animal world and the consequent silence of that world, its unmessaged, listless, speechless vacancy. Poet Gary Snyder speaks of the necessity to 'Bring up our children as part of the wildlife,' but the dominant culture treats wildlife as insignificant to children's happiness, which, as children themselves know, is a terrible oversight. Children's classics such as Anna Sewell's Black Beauty and Michael Morpurgo's mesmerizing War Horse touch the hearts of millions of children as they willingly listen to the experience of creatures other than human."

Sealskin, Soulskin by Lucy Campbell

"Shape-shifting is an epistemology, a way for people to increase their sensitivities, to perceive the world with an imaginative leap, to feel through the body of another, metaphorically. Pueblo Indian children, from three years old, transform themselves into antelope and deer, they don fox skins, deer hooves or parrot feathers. In rituals and dances, through lyrics, choreography and costume, the child embodies earth-knowledge -- of corn and cloud, of sun and lightning, of buffalo and skunk -- and steps through the looking glass. Animal nature is another side of human nature, a mirror, by twilight, by twolight, where the twinnedness of those myths is reflected....Through a relationship with animals, we human add to the repertoire of our senses the beady alertness of a bird, the scent-subtlety of a mole, the smooth-swum escape of the fish. This is the apprenticeship which children gleefully follow, given half a chance."

Painting by Lucy Campbell

I certainly would have followed it as a child, being one of those kids with no interest in dolls but who carried stuffed animals everywhere. I've been making up for lost time ever since, inviting animals into my writing, art, and life. Embracing "the whiskey of animality," to use Jay Griffith's wonderful phrase, and kissing the lion's nose. Or at least my dog's, which is just as good.

Painting by Lucy Campbell

The art today is by Scottish painter Lucy Campbell, whose figurative and magical realist work is inspired by nature, dreams, mythology, Jungian psychology, and "the human need for wildness, magic and mystery, and above all, trust and healing." Her art is exhibited from Aberdeen to Los Angeles, and collected around the world. 

"I paint to connect," she says; "I see the purpose of creating as providing a conduit for people to feel connected with their wild self, their child self; their furred, feathered, winged, untamed self.  The subjects I paint are either engaged in a deep, soulful hug, or in magical flight -- the flight of the unfettered imagination; always in connection with a spirit creature, to represent a connection with the wild within.  I see this as important because I see in the world so much disconnect with nature, with wildness, with our deepest instincts.  I understand it as a longing and hope for peace, reassurance, healing.  More often than not I paint children with their animals; in trusting, protective and protected embraces with their wild selves.  I see trust and love and wildness as crucial things that need to be expressed and shared."

Please visit Campbell's website to see more of her work.

Cards by Lucy Campell

Painting by Lucy Campbell

Words: The passages above are from Kith:The Riddle of the Childscape by Jay Griffiths (Hamish Hamilton Publishers, 2013). The quotes in the picture captions are from a variety of sources, including Wild by Jay Giffiths, Becoming Animal by David Abram, and Dwellings by Linda Hogan. All rights reserved by the authors. Pictures: All of the paintings above are by Lucy Campell. All rights reserved by the artist.


The enclosure of childhood

Illustration by Crista Unzner

After posting about "Wild Children" yesterday, I found myself thinking about the following passage from Jay Griffith's dazzling book Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape:

"If there is one word that sums up the treatment of children today, it is enclosure," she writes, alluding to the Enclosure Acts which privatized huge swaths of British common Rapunzel by Crista Unznerland from the 17th century onward. "Today's children are enclosed in school and home, enclosed in cars to shuttle between them, enclosed by fear, by surveillance and poverty and enclosed in rigid schedules of time. These enclosures compound each other and make children bitterly unhappy. In 2011, UNICEF asked children what they needed to be happy and the top things were time (particularly with families), friendships and, yearningly, 'outdoors.' Studies show that when children are allowed unstructured play in nature, their sense of freedom, independence, and inner strength all thrive, and children surrounded by nature are not only less stressed but also bounce back from stressful events more readily.

"But there has been a steady reduction in available open spaces for children to play. In the USA, the home turf of children shrank by ninety per cent beween 1970 and 1990. Similarly, in Britain, children have one ninth of the roaming room they had in earlier generations. Childhood is losing its commons. There has also been a reduction in available time, with less than ten per cent of children now spending time playing in woodlands, countryside or heaths, compared to forty per cent who did so a generation ago.

The Frog Prince by Crista Unzner

"Although they are themselves part of nature, children are removed from the world of moss and trees, of fur and paw. Children don't need to live in the countryside to have access to nature, and most city children, left to their own devices, can find a bare minimum of what they need in urban parks and gardens, even on the streets. But play is enclosed indoors while outside signs bark at children like Alsatian guard dogs: NO CYCLING. NO SKATEBOARDS. NO BALL GAMES. NO SWIMMING. NO TRESPASSING.

Frau Holle and Hansel & Gretel by Crista Unzner

Christa Unzner

"My later childhood was hollowed by cold and poverty," Griffiths continues, "and that depression which sets up snares in the young psyche, trapping it for life. My early childhood, though, was far happier, in large part because my brothers and I were part of the last generation which was not under house arrest. It was not a rural childhood, but we had a garden, and a few streets away a river ran by the side of the 'wreck,' as we called the recreation ground. It was a wreck. Scruffy. Ignored. Ours. Five minutes' walk away was a park. Two hours away were grandparents who lived by the sea. All the games we had fitted into a bench trunk about six foot by two. We were rich in library books, bicycles and outdoors.

"Outdoors, we could do what we liked. Throwing sticky seeds at each other, gurgling water or chucking it all over someone. Indoors, obviously not, for indoors was where complexity began: 'mine' and 'yours' and the different rules of time. Outdoors was a commons of space and a commons of time, the undivided hours until dark. Outdoors could comprehend all our moods: thoughtful, playful, withdrawn or rampaging. Outdoors was the place for voices other than human."

 Ein Haus für alle

 Ich bin der kleine König by"Along with everyone else I knew, from the first day of school we walked there. I went with my brothers and friends, a little ragged string of us, taking short cuts that weren't, chatting nonsense, swapping things, eating sweets, making dares, sticking chewing gum on the walls, doing deals, showing off, doing silly walks, shuffling, holding hands, telling secrets, getting the giggles. It was a crucial part of the whole business of childhood. We learned our home territory....There was, of course, safety in numbers. When today so few children are out alone, the venturesome child feels vulnerable indeed. In Britain, in 1971, eighty per cent of all seven- and eight-year-olds went to school on their own. By 1990, this had dropped to nine per cent. In 2010, two children, aged eight and five, cycled to school alone and their headmaster threatened to report their parents to social services. They should have been awarded a medal for allowing their children the freedom which we took for granted and which gave us so much."

 Was macht der Kater in der Nacht by Crista Unzner

Steffi Start

"See, this is my opinion: we all start out knowing magic," says Robert McCammon in his novel Boy's Life. "We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, washed out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves."

"Because children grow up," writes Tom Stoppard in his play The Coast of Utopia, "we think a child's purpose is to grow up. But a child's purpose is to be a child. Nature doesn't disdain what lives only for a day. It pours the whole of itself into the each moment. We don't value the lily less for not being made of flint and built to last. Life's bounty is in its flow, later is too late. Where is the song when it's been sung? The dance when it's been danced? It's only we humans who want to own the future, too."

The Blue Monster by Crista Unzner

The charming art today is by German book artist Crista Unzner. Born and educated in Berlin, she has lived in Italy, Mexico, Nicaragua, The Netherlands, and now divides her time between Berlin and the south of France, sharing homes in both places with her husband and hound. Please visit Crista Unzner's website to see more of her illustration and design work.

The Blue Monster by Crista Unzner

The Jay Griffiths quotes in this post and in the picture captions (run your cursor over the images to see them) are all from Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape (Hamish Hamilton, 2013) -- which I highly recommend reading it in full, along with her previous books Wild: An Elemental Journey and Pip Pip: A Sideways Look at Time. The rights to the text and art above aare reserved by the authors and artists.


Wild Children

The Miracle of Tears by Sulamith Wulfing (1901-1989)

For the Folklore Thurday theme of "children" this week:

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 Medea. 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. 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.

Hansel & Gretel by Kay Nielsen (1886-1957)

When we turn to folk tales and fairy tales, however, although we also find stories of children abandoned in the wild and 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.

Little Red Cap by Lisbeth 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."

Peau d'âne (Donkeyskin) by Anneclaire Macé
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 children 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 Louse Judd

Baby Stolen by Goblins by Maurice Sendak (1928-2012)

In one set of folk tales, however, children who disappear into the woods do not often return: the "changeling" stories of babies (and older children)  stolen by faeries, goblins, and trolls. 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.

Toby and the Goblins by Brian FroudThe 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.

From the film L'Enfant sauvage (The Wild Child) by François Truffaut

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.

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."

Tiger Girls by Fay Ku

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."

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 either.

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 art above is: "The Miracle of Tears" by Sulamith Wulfing (Germany); "Moses in the Bulrushes," artist unknown; "Remus and Romulus," an Ertruscan bronze; "Wolf Mama" and "Starchild" by Susan Seddon-Boulet (England/Brazil/USA); "Hansel & Gretel" by Kay Nielsen (Denmark); "Little Red Cap" by Lisbeth Zwerger (Austria); "Snow White" by Trina Schart Hyman (USA); Donkeyskin by Anneclaire Macé (France); "Three Black Dogs" by Kelly Louise Judd (USA), "Baby Stolen by Gobins" by Maurice Sendak (USA); "Toby and the Goblins" by Brian Froud (UK); a still from the film "L'Enfant sauvage" by François Truffaut (France); "Tiger Girls by Fay Ku (Tawain/USA); a photograph from the "Ashes and Snow" series by Gregory Colbert (Canada); "Mowgli" by Edward Julius Detmold (UK); "Where the Wild Things Are" by Maurice Sendak (USA); "Peter Pan" by David Wyatt (UK); "Peter Pan" by Brian Froud (UK); "Peter Pan at the Window" by F.D. Beford (UK); an illustration by Robert Ingapen (Australia); and "Peter Pan" by Charles Buchel (Germany/England).

Parts of this post have been drawn from these articles: The Orphaned Hero, Changelings, Peter Pan.


The Sense of Wonder

Little Red Cap by Lisbeth Zwerger

"As a child, one has that magical capacity to move among the many eras of the earth," writes Valerie Andrews in A Passion for this Earth; "to see the land as an animal does; to experience the sky from the perspective of a flower or a bee; to feel the earth quiver and breathe beneath us; to know a hundred different smells of mud and listen unselfconsciously to the soughing of the trees."  

 Little Red Cap by Lisbeth Zwerger

Two illustrations for Thumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerger

But as Jay Griffiths cautions in her extraordinary book  Kith: The Riddle of the Childscape: "Children have been exiled from their kith, their square mile, a land right of the human spirit. Naturally kindled in green, they need nature, woodlands, mountains, rivers and seas both physically and emotionally, no matter how small a patch; children's spirits can survive on very little, but not on nothing. Yet woodlands are privatized ... while even the streets -- the commons of the urban child -- have been closed off to them."

Thumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerger

Thumbelina by Lisbeth Zwerher

What can we do to bring them back to the wild? Both the wild in the landscape and the wild in themselves?

"By suggestion and example, I believe children can be helped to hear the many voices about them," ecologist Rachel Carson wrote in The Sense of Wonder (published posthumously in 1965). "Take time to listen and talk about the voices of the earth and what they mean -- the majestic voice of thunder, the winds, the sound of surf or flowing streams." 

Wonderment by Lisbeth Zwerger

Carson's words were important back in the '60s, and they are even more so today. As Alan Dyer states in "A Sense of Adventure" (Resurgence Magazine, Sept/Oct 2004):

"Children the world over have a right to a childhood filled with beauty, joy, adventure, and companionship. They will grow toward ecological literacy if the soil they are nurtured in is rich with experience, love, and good examples."

The Rose Tree Regiment by Lisbeth Zwerger

The paintings today are by one of my all-time favorite artists, the extraordinary Lisbeth Zwerger. Born in Vienna, Austria in 1954, she studied at the Applied Arts Academy in that city and has been illustrated Dorothy & Toto by Lizebeth Zwergerchildren's books since 1977, winning the prestigious Hans Christian Andersen Medal for "lasting contributions to children's literature" in 1990. Zwerger has very little web presence of her own, but you can find examples of her art on Pinterest and Tumblr -- or better still, go to her glorious books, including many fine illustrated editions of fairy tales by the Grimms, Andersen, and Oscar Wilde; classics such as Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Nutcracker, and A Christmas Carol; and a very lovely art book, The Art of Lisbeth Zwerger -- which sits paint-stained and much-thumbed-through near my own drawing board, a constant source of inspiration.

The Wizard of Oz by Lizbeth Zwerger

The Deliverers of Their Country by Lisbeth Zwerger

Related reading: Finding the way to the green, The enclosure of childhood, and Kissing the lion's nose.