Saturday 6 February 2021

A peak in Darien by Paul May

'The advantage  that children's fiction has over other types of writing is its near irresistible appeal to the reader to identify directly with its characters.' (Colin Burrow in London Review of Books 21/1/21)

I was reading Burrow's review of two books, one by Ursula Le Guin and the other a collection of interviews and conversations with her, when this sentence brought me up short. Why had I never thought of this? It explains so much about my approach to reading. When I was a child I always read at night, long after I was supposed to be asleep, and when I did finish a book and close my eyes I would carry on the action in my head, I would be one of the characters, be a part of their adventures, imagine new ones. My involvement was total. 

One of Le Guin's later additions to the Earthsea trilogy.
Those who identified with Sparrowhawk,
the wizard of the earlier books, were in for a shock.
As Burrow says 'always in Le Guin there is a 
sharp ironical turn against any reader who wants to be a hero.'

And that made me think about the way I feel about reading fiction now, or indeed about watching fiction on TV. I find it very hard to feel involved at all, and I've realized that there seems to have been a process going on throughout my life through which made-up stories have grabbed me less and less as the years pass. I am more likely these days to be watching the latest episode of '24 hours in A & E' than the latest drama about serial killers or child abduction.

I think that my childhood approach to reading was essentially one of escapism, or perhaps a kind of virtual tourism with a bit of time travel thrown in. There are moments of discovery in reading which are very like that moment when a new vista appears at the top of a mountain pass. The epigraph Arthur Ransome placed at the very start of his Swallows and Amazons series could hardly have been better chosen:

"Or like stout Cortez, when with eagle eyes,

 He stared at the Pacific - and all his men

 Looked at each other with a wild surmise - 

Silent, upon a peak in Darien."

(The poem, if you don't know it, is Keats's 'On first looking into Chapman's Homer'.)

Back in 1975 a friend suggested cycling from Norfolk to Scotland. We travelled through the Yorkshire Dales in spring, camping in fields by rivers, getting milk from friendly farmers, blissfully unaware that, even back then, the Dales were a tourist destination. We saw no tourists, only wonderful landscapes and empty roads. I've been back many times since, but eventually you realize that it will never be like the first time. And it's not just that you won't ever see those particular hills again for the first time, it's that with each new place you visit, each new experience you have, you hope you'll recreate that freshness of youth, of never really having seen anything much before. And of course, even though each new journey may be enjoyable and exciting, it's never the first journey.

So too with books - at least, for me. That complete immersion in story and character becomes increasingly hard to find as time passes. It has taken a while for my ability to identify with characters to fade, but now it's pretty much gone. It's occurred to me that I've experienced a gradual transition from Aristotle to Brecht, that where once I could engage fully with the characters (I'm not sure I ever really purged my emotions in the classic cathartic manner) I am now essentially distanced from most of the fiction I read or watch, unable to enter into 'passive acceptance and entertainment,' as Wikipedia characterises the distancing or estrangement technique.

Eleanor Farjeon

I am, of course, exaggerating slightly, and I may be suffering from a lockdown over-reliance on 'passive entertainment'. But it is the case that I find myself, in my self-imposed task of reading all the Carnegie winners, often more interested in the lives of the authors than in their work or, rather, than in their writing for children. This was especially so with Walter de la Mare, and is also the case with his friend, Eleanor Farjeon. Like de la Mare she wrote what might be called modern fairy tales in the Hans Andersen tradition (she won the first Hans Andersen award in 1956) but hers are more down-to-earth and much more fun. Many of them, I'm sure, would still be appreciated by children today. I enjoyed her stories, but I am far more interested in her friendship with Edward Thomas and his wife, and in her poetry. Farjeon's Carnegie win in 1955 was one of those 'lifetime achievement award' kinds of thing, and so was C S Lewis's win in 1956 for 'The Last Battle'.

So much has been written about the Narnia books that I don't think there's any need for me to add to it here, other than to say that 'The Last Battle' seems to me to be the worst of the series, and that the 'Christian message' to be found in previous winners like The Little White Horse or The Lark on the Wing seems considerably more palatable, up-front and honest. Christian motifs also animate Lewis's adult science fiction trilogy where they sit far more comfortably because the reader feels that Lewis is exploring ideas, rather than trying to influence young children by stealth, which is how I was definitely left feeling by 'The Last Battle'.

After I accidentally heard a bit of what must have been a very early radio adaptation of 'The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' when I was a very small child, it was a good ten years before I plucked up the courage to read it. I read all the Narnia books eventually, but I think it might have done me more good to read Eleanor Farjeon. She knew all about that gradual disappearance of the freshness of youth, and was pretty good at recovering it, as you can tell from her most famous poem, 'Morning has Broken', and also from her story, 'Westwoods'.

There is a tall wooden fence sealing off the Westwoods from the land of Workaday. Mothers tell their children the Westwoods are dangerous, but they long to see beyond the fence, at least until they grow up and marry and have children of their own. It turns out that the Westwoods are wonderful but contain something dangerous to the land of Workaday—dreams. It's the young King's maid, Selina, who leads him eventually into Westwoods, and she's one of Farjeon's many very real-feeling female characters. When the king asks her to marry him her reply is typical. 'Oh all right,' she says.  

Paul May's website

No comments: