Sunday 14 April 2024

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

This month's blog was originally published in 2021, but there could be some out there who never saw it then who might enjoy reading it now.  And even if you did read it first time round, you might enjoy reading it again.  I hope so, anyway.

While wondering what to write about, 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  Published in 2008, some of the gems inside are somewhat out of date – but others are still fascinating and totally relevant today.  Although some articles are more concerned with books for adults, this particular item 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 read 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 young pal, six-year-old Margaret 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 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.  Five more next month! 


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