No Go the Bogeyman
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In her study of fairy tales, From the Beast to the Blonde, Marina Warner demonstrated her remarkable ability to make fertile connections between past and present, the anthropology of folktale and contemporary artefacts, fiction and fact. In an age of specialisation she is unafraid to be a cultural polymath. The book was important for children's literature, not only because it enriched our understanding of fairy tales but because Warner's eclectic method brought stories for children out of the ghetto to which 'adult' criticism so often consigns them, and treated them unpatronisingly as a significant part of the broader culture. In No Go the Bogeyman she displays the same impressive qualities and attitudes, turning her attention this time to bogeymen, ogres, cannibals, giants, child-killers, paedophiles and other monsters. No Go the Bogeyman is about fear, not least our fears for and of children, and the many strategies that adults and children use to engender and tame it. The book is split into three sections, 'Scaring' 'Lulling' and 'Making Mock', reflecting the three strategies - of externalised terror, soothing consolation, and mocking laughter - which between them cover most of our efforts to name and subdue the demons. The shortest of these sections, Warner's study of lullabies, is the most strikingly original contribution to children's literature criticism. Lullabies have been strangely neglected. In a dazzling analysis Warner demonstrates the complexity of instincts and motives at work in these notionally simple poems in song. The words of lullabies are often disconcertingly brutal. Neutralised for infants by the charm of the music, they can voice the mother's exhaustion and aggression, the resented cares of child-rearing, but they also express anxieties for the baby in its vulnerable present and imagined future, warding off strangers and aggressors and displacing possible real-life harms onto imagined monsters. For good measure, they teach key linguistic skills. Elsewhere childhood is an omnipresent concern in the book, and children's stories past and present are repeatedly invoked as evidence of the changing chemistry of terror and delight. As a cultural analysis of our current anxious, envious and contradictory attitudes to childhood, the book is courageous and persuasive. A set of brief but penetrating studies of individual books, including Dahl's The BFG, Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are and David McKee's Not Now, Bernard, are points of focus in a rewarding and finally disturbing contribution to cultural history. Not Now, Bernard, a bitterly funny and poignant book, illustrates a key element in Warner's presentation. Bernard, consumed and incorporated by a monster, is then supplanted by it, but his parents, negligently busy with their own concerns, fail to notice. For them, Bernard in both incarnations is a peripheral monster in their lives. The story is part of a pattern in which modern adults idealize a hypothetical childhood while failing to meet children's true needs. They engage in what Warner calls 'a generalized cult of childishness', which is unprecedentedly vengeful towards any breach of its 'coveted realm of enchantment', whether by adults or children themselves. Adult abusers and children who kill have joined the bogeymen nowadays. I think Warner's analysis is correct, and this exhilarating work of scholarship forbids any complacent view of present-day childhood.