The name of the game these days is accessibility: and under the banner of accessibility several publishers in the past year have produced, in the format of tall picture books with at most 120 pages, versions of classical texts retold or abridged by well-known authors and illustrated by the stars of modern children’s book illustration. How far is this exercise justified? Which stories lend themselves to such treatment? Which, by their original brilliance, make an abridgment or a retelling a travesty? Elaine Moss investigates.
Few children today will ever read The Odyssey in Greek so there is an obvious case for retelling the ancient stories of the hero’s wanderings, the horrors of the encounter with the Cyclops, the episode of the Lotus-eaters, the sailing between Scylla and Charybdis all of which are part of Western folklore. One cannot help feeling, however, that Neil Philip’s text for The Adventures of Odysseus took second place, in the publisher’s pitch for sales, to Peter Malone’s glaringly bright hard-edged pictures which appear on almost every page and include three dramatic double spreads. If Philip had been given more space and a freer hand with his usually elegant sentence construction (much of which, here, is simple and clipped) the flavour, rather than just the stories from The Odyssey might have reached across the ‘wine dark seas’.
Many excellent writers, including Rosemary Sutcliff, have retold the tales of Robin Hood and his Merry Men, so it was clever of Michael Morpurgo in Robin of Sherwood to introduce into his retelling an element of dream and mystery that connects a modern boy, experiencing the hurricane of 1987 in which a great oak is uprooted in the forest, with a dream dreamt by Robin Hood in which his death is foretold. Morpurgo is a compelling storyteller relishing the drama, the horror, the humour, the quirky characters of the ‘outcasts’ as he calls them. The fierce clash within Robin between his love for Maid Marion and the desire for royal patronage which is our hero’s undoing, is poignantly explored. Michael Foreman’s flowing watercolours in foresty green, midnight blue and dungeon darkness reflect the jovial comradeship, the spirit of the oppressed versus the oppressor and the robust fun that are at the heart of this most English set of stories.
The legends of King Arthur, like those of Robin Hood, have no authentic text so look to the talents of each generation to keep them alive. Geraldine McCaughrean is a storyteller par excellence so her King Arthur and the Round Table is alive with magic and mystery, dense with intrigue, uplifting in its moments of pure chivalry and romance. For these are sombre tales as well as noble ones, ending in the Age of Darkness that followed the mythical Arthur’s death. McCaughrean’s writing is fearlessly vivid – ‘a banneret… lolled like a tongue’ – and Alan Marks’ fluid watercolours bring out the essentially timeless quality of the stories.
Great classic texts
The remaining classics-for-all under review are neither myth nor legend but great texts of literature in the English language that modern readers (albeit older than the ones for whom the current ‘accessible’ texts are intended) can and do read. In a perfect world these should be neither shortened nor tampered with.
Who but Herman Melville can generate the breathless excitement, heightened by the interspersed longueurs about Nature and whaling, of Moby Dick? Should not readers wait until they are skilled enough (as adults?) to encounter the obsessed Captain Ahab, gigantic Queequeg, saintly Starbuck, the naive Ishmael and the catalyst Moby Dick in the language of Melville himself? The answer, of course, is yes. But despite my misgivings about the retelling of the classics I must go on record as saying that if anyone is to retell Moby Dick (and I still think nobody should) that person is Geraldine McCaughrean. Keeping the rhythms of Melville’s prose but shearing from his text the archaisms and reflective passages, she has kept faith with this enthralling adventure story and its theme of revenge at all costs. Melville’s crew of colourful characters live and breathe, both in McCaughrean’s text and in Victor Ambrus’ brilliant pictorial representation of them, in line and wash as well as in colour. The strength of these illustrations, arguably the best set this master illustrator has produced in a long career, bear comparison with Mervyn Peake’s for Stevenson’s Treasure Island. McCaughrean’s retelling of Moby Dick should capture the same readership.
There are but two good things about the Collins edition of Oliver Twist abridged (a profanity surely?) by Lesley Baxter: one is the art work of Christian Birmingham whose soft pencil vignettes and dark pastels strike exactly the right murky note. The other is the passionately enthusiastic Introduction by Michael Morpurgo from which I quote: ‘Dickens’ triumph is to have written a story so powerful, so universal, so true, that we can learn as much from it now as his readers did in his lifetime … All through it, we long to call out to him [Oliver], to warn him, to protect him, hold his hand, hope he’ll come through.’ As Dickens himself said, ‘I did it as best I could’ and as Morpurgo adds ‘the best anyone could’. Had Morpurgo, I wonder, been asked to write an introduction to Oliver Twist, the work of the master, without being given sight of Lesley Baxter’s so-called ‘abridgment’ which is also, as it turns out, an unforgivable textual simplification? Here is just one example from the myriad I could quote: the substitution of ‘got up’ for ‘rose’, and ‘bowl’ for ‘basin’ in the famous gruel scene which now reads, merely, ‘Oliver got up from the table, and advancing to the master, bowl and spoon in hand, said “Please sir, I want some more.”’ Gone is ‘somewhat alarmed at his own temerity’, gone is the awed silence preceding the climax – gone, in effect, is the Dickens’ Oliver Twist that Michael Morpurgo and countless other children have thrilled to under the bedclothes by torchlight. In its place we have this brilliantly introduced, excellently illustrated excuse for the novel – the story of Oliver Twist in some of Dickens’ own immortal words. An unforgivable sin.
The Water Babies – again in vogue?
Maybe now that Christian Socialism is firmly entrenched in Downing Street Charles Kingsley’s moralistic fantasy The Water Babies will again come into vogue. If so, one must hope that it will not be The Water Babies retold by Josephine Poole or anyone else but a perhaps abridged edition of the original somewhat overlong and discursive Kingsley text. It is not the story of The Water Babies that has made it the classic that it now is, but Charles Kingsley’s language that bears with it an authentic evocation of the conditions of mid-Victorian life – its cruelties as well as its virtues. Published two years before Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and in the middle of a period when didacticism and evangelism were advancing in full moral righteousness against fantasy and the fairy tale, The Water Babies was a landmark in children’s book history. That Kingsley’s paternal storytelling voice is an essential ingredient in its richness is undeniable. Modern children will have seen more exciting fantasies unfolding before their eyes on television, so any retelling of the mere story, even the capable Josephine Poole’s (with Jan Ormerod’s somewhat nervous and uneven illustrations) must be measured against what is available as story in other media. Way back in 1961 the celebrated Kathleen Lines edited The Water Babies for young readers: that edition, with near magical line drawings by Harold Jones, is available in libraries and infinitely to be preferred to any retelling, however competent.
Details of books discussed
The Adventures of Odysseus, retold by Neil Philip, ill. Peter Malone, Orion, 1 85881 225 9, £12.99
Robin of Sherwood, retold by Michael Morpurgo, ill. Michael Foreman, Pavilion, 1 85793 718 X, £12.99
King Arthur and the Round Table, retold by Geraldine McCaughrean, ill. Alan Marks, Macdonald, 0 7500 1527 6, £12.99
Moby Dick, retold by Geraldine McCaughrean, ill. Victor G Ambrus, Oxford, 0 19 274156 X, £12.99
Oliver Twist, retold by Lesley Baxter, ill. Christian Birmingham, Collins, 0 00 198192 7, £14.99
The Water Babies, retold by Josephine Poole, ill. Jan Ormerod, Macdonald, 0 7500 1756 2, £12.99
Elaine Moss, teacher and primary school librarian now retired, was for 10 years the selector of Children’s Books of the Year.