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Children’s literature: fantasy or moral realism?

11 January 2016

I’ve seen a couple of interesting articles on children’s literature recently, comparing British and American styles of writing.

Harry Potter vs. Huckleberry Finn: Why the British Tell Better Children’s Stories Than Americans – The Atlantic:

If Harry Potter and Huckleberry Finn were each to represent British versus American children’s literature, a curious dynamic would emerge: In a literary duel for the hearts and minds of children, one is a wizard-in-training at a boarding school in the Scottish Highlands, while the other is a barefoot boy drifting down the Mississippi, beset by con artists, slave hunters, and thieves. One defeats evil with a wand, the other takes to a raft to right a social wrong. Both orphans took over the world of English-language children’s literature, but their stories unfold in noticeably different ways.

An interesting thesis, and I was wondering about it when an American scholar of the Inklings (some of whom wrote some of the best-known British children’s fantasy stories) posted a tweet on Twitter, asking “which fairy story traumatised you most as a child?”

And I couldn’t think of any fairy stories that had traumatised me at all. I could think of a children’s story that traumatised me as a child, and it was one of the American moral realism school. My cousins had a copy of this book:
Uncle Arthur's Bedtime Stories Volume One (Bedtime Stories, #1)Uncle Arthur’s Bedtime Stories Volume One by Arthur S. Maxwell
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

It was moralistic and scary. The story that traumatised me most, so that I still remember it, was one about a boy who liked to throw stones, and he threw one at a girl called Doris, and hit her on the voice box so she could no longer speak. It gave me nightmares for weeks.

I later developed a taste for horror stories, and I’m in the middle of reading a collection of horror stories at bed time, but none of them has ever horrified me as much as Uncle Arthur’s bedtime stories. I later discovered that the book had been published by Seventh-Day Adventists, and Seventh-Day Adventism is a “made in the USA” variety of Protestantism that is more moralistic than most.

Uncle Arthur’s bedtime stories is perhaps an extreme example of the moralism that pervades much American children’s literature, but I think Colleen Gillard in her article in The Atlantic misses the mark in many ways. She makes no mention of Madeleine l’Engle, for example.

And one of the pull quotes in Gillard’s article gets it exactly wrong:

Popular storytelling in the New World instead tended to celebrate in words and song the larger-than-life exploits of ordinary men and women.

But the best fantasy and fairy stories are not about extraordinary people, they are about extraordinary things happening to ordinary people. Jack the Giantkiller is an ordinary boy who climbs an extraordinary beanstalk. The children in the Narnia stories are ordinary schoolchildren who encounter an extraordinary world. In The Lord of the Rings Tolkien emphasises the ordinariness of hobbits, some of whom have quite extraordinary adventures. Harry Potter is a wizard, which makes him extraordinary among muggles, but in most of the stories he is a wizard among other wizards, where being a wizard is not extraordinary. And at the centre of the Harry Potter stories are moral choices where Christian values predominate, contrary to what Gillard asserts.

Gillard goes on to say that British children’s stories are better than American ones because of the pagan roots of British fantasy. I think that is adequately refuted in this article Catholic or Pagan Imagination: A Response to Colleen Gillard — Letters from the Edge of Elfland, and the author’s reaction to Gillard’s article is similar to mine:

Things were going along fine at first. The first line of the article, a kind of one sentence summation of the article in toto, says, “Their history informs fantastical myths and legends, while American tales tends to focus on moral realism.” Gillard goes on to provide evidence for this by first contrasting Huckleberry Fin to the Harry Potter stories. As Gillard writes, “One defeats evil with a wand, the other takes to a raft to right a social wrong.” American children stories especially from the nineteenth century onward tend to focus on life in the frontier and usually have a strong moral ethic to them that involves working hard, or being cunning enough to get others to work hard for you, sticking to your guns against an immoral society or an amoral nature. Gillard, citing Harvard professor Maria Tatar, connects the American side to the Protestant work ethic. Again, I find myself agreeing. Yet it is when Tatar suggests that it’s simply that, “the British have always been in touch with their pagan folklore…. After all, the country’s very origin story is about a young king tutored by a wizard.” Now Gillard, and Tatar, is going a bit awry if you ask me. First of all, King Arthur, while an essential story within British culture, is not exactly the country’s origin story. That’s not quite the role it’s meant to fill. But putting that aside, Merlin being a wizard and Arthur’s tutor (which sounds much more like Gillard is getting her Arthurian legend through T. H. White rather than, say, Chretien de Troyes or the Gawain Poet or many, many others) doesn’t make those stories pagan.

I think there as more than can be said about this. The Arthurian stories are set in Romanised Britain just after the Roman invaders had left and when the Anglo-Saxon invaders are beginning to arrive. But they were popularised in Britain at the time that the Norman invaders had established their power over the Anglo-Saxon invaders of the post-Arthurian period. The people at the centre of the Arthurian stories are neither Norman nor Anglo-Saxon, so it is certainly not their origins that are being portrayed. And I find it interesting that the legend of the Holy Grail is being developed just about the time that the Roman Catholic doctrine of transsubstantiation was being defined. The Arthurian stories are not really pagan, and nor are they children’s stories.

Gillard also does not mention the British author whose children’s stories are most pagan in background, namely Alan Garner. If any children’s book comes close to supporting Gillard’s thesis about paganism in children’s literature The Weirdstone of Brisingamen would.

But the appeal of Garner’s works is similar to that of the more demonstrably Christian-based ones like those of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien et al. I think David Mosley comes closer to the mark when he contrasts the Catholic background of British culture with the influence of the Protestant work ethic on the dominant American culture.

But I think there is even more to it than that. The USA was founded in modernity, the values of which were shapped by movements such as the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. These shaped the kind opf Christianity that took root in America, and the kind of values portrayed in much American children’s literature.

British authors like Tolkien and Lewis portray, or at least value, a premodern worldview. In the Harry Potter books there is something similar. The Muggles are thoroughly modern, mired in modernity. But there is something premodern about the wizarding world, even though there is much that is also modern about the students at Hogwarts.

Modernity has little time for the premodern world and worldview. Christian missionaries who came to Africa from Western Europe and America in the 19th century battled to understand the premodern African culture they encountered and many of them concluded that Africans must be “civilized” (ie “modernised”) before they could be Christianised. Compare also the Orthodox missionaries in 19th-century Alaska witrh their Protestant counterparts. The Orthodox missionaries attributed some of the visions of the Alaskan shamans to the Holy Spirit, the Protestant missionaries attributed them to primitive superstition or the devil.

What I think Gillard fails to understand is that premodern Christians and premodern pagans inhabited the same universe. They experienced the same problems in the same way and within the same cultural framework, and very often the same assumptions about the world. They may have differed about the solutions, but they faced the same problems.

Gillard seems to regard Christians in the premodern world as modern Americans in medieval dress — which is precisely what the Seventh-Day Adventist authors of books like Uncle Arthur’s bedtime stories do. Seventh-Day Adventist illustrated books on the Bible show Americans from 1947 wearing dressing gowns wandering around the ancient Near East. That is perhaps the biggest fantasy of all.

If anyone would like to follow the theme further, see my article on Christianity, Paganism and Literature.




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