Tuesday 14 September 2021

Where do I come from? (part 1) by Lynne Benton

 While wondering what to write about in this month’s blog, I came across a thin book, almost hidden among fatter volumes on my bookshelf, called The Observer Book of Books.  Published in 2008, some of the articles inside are somewhat out of date – but others are still fascinating and totally relevant today.  Although some pieces are more concerned with books for adults, this particular gem is specifically about children’s books – which inspired this blog.

Where do I come from? concerns the origins of children’s fiction, and tells of the background to several famous books.  Since there are ten in all, I’ve decided to write about five this month and leave the remaining five for next month’s blog.  They are listed in chronological order – at least, in order of the year of their publication.

The first book is one everyone will have heard of and most will have read, possibly many times, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll, first published in 1865. 

As most people know, Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) was an Oxford minister who told his original story to, and based its heroine on, his young friend Alice Liddell.  However, what is not quite so well-known is that several real people appear in the story as nonsensical characters, such as Dodgson himself as the Dodo, Disraeli as Bill the Lizard, inventor Theophilus Carter as the Mad Hatter, and artist John Ruskin as the Drawing Master.

The second book is The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, by Frank L Baum, published in 1900.

This was possibly intended to be more political fable than fantasy, since Baum was sympathetic to the Populists, a socialist alliance of farmers (Scarecrow) and industrial workers (Tin Man).  Both were sent down the Yellow Brick Road (the gold standard) along with the Lion (the natural world), braving the Wicked Witch of the East (Wall Street) to see the Wizard (the president), who was an ordinary man of illusory power.  Baum’s books give over the rule of Oz to the commoners, while Dorothy (folk wisdom) returns to Kansas.  Now, having discovered all that, I’d rather like to see the film/read the book all over again!

Next comes Peter Pan by J. M. Barrie, published in 1902.

Peter sprang from several sources: JM Barrie’s brother, who died at the age of 13 and would therefore never grow up (or “remain a boy forever”), the five Llewelyn Davies boys whom Barrie befriended, and perhaps Barrie himself, who was only 5 feet tall.  Another child, six-year-old Margert Henley, called Barrie “my fwendy”, and became Wendy.  The Roman god Pan gave Peter his surname and mischievous persona.

Following that comes number four: The Wind in the Willows, by Kenneth Grahame, published in 1908.

Grahame invented this tale for his son Alastair.  Blind in one eye and an only child, Alastair was prone to rages (he committed suicide at 21).  Mr Toad’s preposterous behaviour matched Alastair’s, providing a welcome but controllable disruption into the Riverbank’s orderly Edwardians.

And the fifth and final book in this selection is Winnie-the-Pooh, by A A Milne, published in 1924.

The book was modelled on Milne’s son, Christopher Robin, and his toys.  The bear was called Winnie after London Zoo’s Canadian black bear, and Pooh was the name of a swan.  Christopher Milne, who struggled with his legacy (as anyone who saw the recent film “Goodbye Christopher Robin” will appreciate) later recalled his mother Daphne as the one who invented stories about toy animals.

I found all this information quite fascinating, and I hope you do too.  More next month!

visit my website www.lynnebenton.com


Penny Dolan said...

Fascinating information, especially the Wizard of Oz analysis, and the Wind in the Willows background feels very sad.

Susan Price said...

I agree, Penny -- I'm certainly more sympathetic to Oz as a political fable than I ever was to it as a children's story!

Lynne Benton said...

Yes, some things make more sense when you know the origins, don't they? Thanks for your comments, Penny and Sue.

Penny Dolan said...

I haven't, now I think about it, read the Wizard of Oz book, which reminds me how powerful the iconography of a film can be when you have not come across the original. Wonder if Dorothy and the others "look" different on the page?

I became quite annoyed by the overwhelming visual presence of Ariel - Disney's Little Mermaid - when that film was released, even though it was a kinder story.