10-year-old Hal is becoming aware of moral issues in the books he reads. His father, psychodynamic counsellor Roger Mills, explains.
One of Hal’s Christmas presents from his grandparents this year was a box set of books by Michael Morpurgo. It is a fine collection and Jo or I have already read two or three of them to Hal last thing before he goes to sleep. At the moment I’m three quarters of the way through a First World War tale, Private Peaceful. Hal likes the book a lot and, given that it isn’t as obviously dramatic and tension driven as things he’s liked in the past, I wondered what it was about it that grabbed him.
He told me that he liked the two main characters – Tommo, the narrator, and his brother Charlie. Charlie he particularly liked because he is ‘brave, courageous, he doesn’t get bossed around. He’s one of those people that doesn’t care about punishment,’ said Hal and he mentioned a pupil at his school who was rather similar. But was that all there was to it I wondered? Did Hal simply like Charlie because he was a bad boy who wasn’t scared of getting into trouble?
No, that wasn’t it, Hal said. It wasn’t that Charlie was a bad boy. In fact what he really liked about Charlie was that ‘he does stuff for the right reasons’. Hal went on to give me a list. He saves a blood hound that is about to be put down by its uncaring aristocratic owner by stealing it. He poaches trout and rabbits from the aristo’s land in order to feed his family. He continues to see his girlfriend Molly, despite her parents’ express prohibition, because he loves her. Hal’s firm view was that Charlie’s moral compass was set just right and that was what made him such a good character.
I remember once a friend who was going up to Uni to read English telling me that he thought literature was basically ‘about morality’. Obviously a sweeping generalisation and I imagine that the friend would cringe a bit at his 18-year-old self’s pronouncement. But that said, it is certainly true that one of the most important things that literature is about is morality. Giving us our sense of what is right or wrong. And here was Hal showing me that Charlie’s morality was precisely one of the things he liked about him.
What seems to be a bit different here, as far as Hal’s development as a reader is concerned, is that he is noticing the moral stuff. Hal has come across plenty of books which are suffused with morality. Harry Potter is full of characters who either want to subjugate others or who want to free them – moral stuff. Roald Dahl’s tales are frequently moral ones, selfishness, unkindness and pomposity being frequent targets. But though we have worked our way through the moral J K Rowling and Dahl in the past, I think that previously Hal has seen these books largely as dramas of goodies pitted against baddies, rather than seeing goodies as people who are good because of the values they care about.
So there is, I think, something new here in what Hal is noticing as a reader. I’m not suggesting that he hasn’t been affected by moral conditioning in fiction before. I am sure he has been. What is different is that he notices it and is beginning to consciously think about it. A year ago this kind of reaction to a book would have been unimaginable in Hal. And don’t get me wrong – Hal still loves battles and gore and baddies getting vanquished as well. But citing someone doing things for the right reasons as one of the best things about a book? That’s a strikingly new note in Hal’s way of looking at fiction.
Private Peaceful by Michael Morpurgo is published by HarperCollins (978 0 00 779112 5, £5.99 pbk).