Margery Fisher chooses Classics currently in print
Kenneth Grahame once wrote `What the Boy chiefly dabbled in was natural history and fairy tales and he just took them as they came, in a sandwichy sort of way, without any distinctions; and really his course of reading strikes me as rather sensible.’ I agree. The `classics’ should be tossed to children as interesting food to be sampled not virtuously but as sandwiches whose fillings might surprise them.
Stories lead the young into innumerable worlds, some like their own, others unfamiliar. The imagined worlds of fantasy are often the easiest to appreciate because they stir universal feelings. George Macdonald’s enduring tales, The Princess and the Goblin (1872) and The Princess and Curdie (1882), describe a little girl of eight climbing resolutely at night to the attic of an old house and a boy four years older tracking hostile goblins in the tunnels of a silver-mine; Irene’s fear and Curdie’s cocky courage can be understood after more than a century. Folklore motifs also hold out a familiar hand to young readers; grotesque creatures like the rock they live in, an old woman spinning, an enchanted thread marking a perilous path, define the little Princess as a traditional heroine, while Curdie the miner’s son is the ageless humble hero who rescues the child from underground and in time becomes a king. The moral theme of good and evil is deepened in the second book, when Irene and Curdie save her royal father from rebellious courtiers; his health, ruined by poison, is restored by fresh bread and wine, and he learns to rule more wisely. The gravity in the stories may be lightened to young readers by the pictorial style and the ageless plot of children battling against enemies but above all the atmosphere of mountain, old house and winding tunnels speak to the imagination in every generation.
More than half a century later a comparable magic world of towering heights and dark underground was created for readers with different expectations of fiction. The villains in The Hobbit include goblins, huge spiders and a dragon, and folktale motifs abound, like honey and wings, keys and incantations. But here is no virtuous Victorian hero. Young readers have acquired (mainly from the media) a sense of irony, a scepticism about motives which should make Bilbo Baggins understandable. Bilbo, who enjoys his cosy burrow and his pipe, who describes himself as no hero but a burglar, is perhaps the first anti-hero in children’s literature. Chosen by the wizard Gandalf to redress wrong in traditional fashion, he must travel dangerously to win back a treasure stolen from the dwarfs by Smaug the dragon. His success comes sometimes from luck, sometimes from judicious retreat, sometimes from quick wits or sheer doggedness; typically, he scorns heroic combat (`Swords … are mostly blunt’) and his chief weapon is a ring of invisibility, won in a riddling contest. The Hobbit has a sardonic tone and a hint of parody and it ends in anti-climax when Bilbo returns home to find he has been presumed dead and his property is being auctioned – a fine homecoming for a hero. This is a wonderfully generous book, full of donnish chat and coloured by magnificently invented scenes in a believable world. Above all it is accessible not just because the author addresses his readers as `you’, but because it belongs to our own climate.
The sense of place in The Little Grey Men and Down the Bright Stream is intensified by B.B.’s naturalist knowledge. The `last gnomes in England’ belong to folktale but the books are essentially celebrations of the English countryside. Each one describes a journey. In the first, Dodder, Baldmoney and Sneezewort voyage up the Folly Brook in search of their missing brother, restless Cloudberry; in the second, the stream is diverted for commercial purposes and the gnomes set out bravely, downstream this time in the direction of Ireland, where they hope to find safe haven. Through their eyes we visualise Dark Wood and Giant Grim’s lines of murdered animals, we feel the mouseskin coracle spinning in the mill-race, we sense the vast space of the estate lake where a lost clockwork launch provides, for a time, food and shelter. While words precisely map the journey, time is marked by seasonable changes and just as naturally the gnomes relate to their animal neighbours. Heron, owl, robin and others only extend their behaviour when necessary -Barny the owl tows the gnomes to Ireland on a cleverly contrived glider. Meanwhile the gnomes themselves are humans, inches high, and they solve the problems of their secret life logically in our terms. Literal-minded children are told just what materials were found for the glider, how a frying-pan was contrived from an empty cartridge-case, who supplied the moleskins for winter clothes. The mixture of inventive fancy and scrupulous accuracy is perfectly judged.
The same practical detail has helped to ensure a permanent place on the shelves for The Wind in the Willows. Nowadays children usually come to this book by way of a play about Toad, but though his exploits do provide something of a central plot, the riverbank is the true subject. Read like this, the chapter entitled `The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’, a stumbling block for many readers, fits in as Pan is seen as the presiding spirit, as he is for the Little Grey Men.
There may be more description in Grahame’s book than the present generation is used to but his most stately polysyllables are easily taken by the ear, given a good reader-aloud. Conceited Toad, the civilised water-vole and his more rustic friends have become household words because of the confident, comic/serious humanisation, and the middle-class world of 1908, with the exciting advent of the motor-car and the social hierarchy of police and washerwomen, squire and poachers, has been introduced to hundreds of children in this ageless narrative.
Kipling in his Just So Stories humanised animals to entertain his small daughter and to instruct her gently in certain aspects of animal life. This is an authorial voice which can be uncomfortable to present-day ears. Strong sentence-rhythms and repetitions ask for reading aloud, but what will a parent today make of contrived abbreviations like `a small `stute fish’ and the Elephant’s Child’s `satiable curiosity’ or of parentheses like the shipwrecked mariner’s excuse `He had his Mummy’s leave to paddle, or else he would never have done it, because he was a man of infinite-resource-and-sagacity’? I can only suggest that it is worth putting up with period and personal devices like these for the sake of the intoxicating rush of words in `The Sing-Song of Old Man Kangaroo’ or the pleasure of meeting phrases like the Djinn’s greeting to the Camel, `My long and bubbling friend’. Besides, the mock-evolution of the Rhino’s skin, the Leopard’s spots and the Armadillo’s carapace has a lunatic logic and the ballooning fancy is tethered by snatches of proper geography. Children of today should not miss these fantasticated presentations of animal life and parents can use the highly orchestrated pieces for a bravura performance at bedtime.
It is a large step from Kipling’s tall-stories to the didacticism of Black Beauty, where accurate details of animal lives are used to illustrate the wrongs done to them by humans, pleading the cause of carriage horses tormented by the fashionable bearing-rein, hunters brought to death by reckless riding, horses ruined by lazy grooms and ostlers. Anna Sewell’s burning sincerity reaches out over the generations to children and their elders; Charles Keeping, whose superb illustrations for the book were among his last pictures, dedicated his edition `To all those concerned with the care and welfare of horses and ponies’. The various names given to the central character (Darkie, Black Auster, Jack, Old Crony, as well as Black Beauty) designate his various homes – a country estate, a farm, a livery stable, a London cabstand), allowing for a procession of Victorian classes and types seen through animal eyes.
Beauty’s first sight of a steam-train, his terror in a stable fire, his sympathy for Ginger, the ill-treated chestnut mare, are translated into human speech and thought, but in no way distorted from nature. As well as being a social manifesto, the book is a study in education; horses must learn to obey and work hard and their masters must learn to care for them sensibly and responsibly. As a story Black Beauty is accessible even after a hundred and fourteen years with its direct style and its varying incidents (a night dash over a flooded river, hazards in London traffic, a horse-fair, a glimpse of the Crimean War). So long as children and horses come together in amity this is a classic that will endure.
From animal worlds where we see ourselves sideways to straight domestic novels for the young. The Secret Garden, published in 1910, speaks timelessly about children who are churlish because they feel unwanted and who find unexpected happiness when they learn to forget themselves. Sallow Mary, rushed from cholera-struck India to windy Yorkshire moorland, Colin brooding at night over his supposedly crooked back – here are characters in period setting wholly recognisable today. In a dance-like arrangement of scenes, Dickon and his housemaid sister Martha, healthy and unpretentious, work their magic, as the garden does too, on the lonely boy and girl so much more fortunate in material ways. Each event, from Mary’s first taste of porridge to her brave venture in the dark to trace the distant crying, with that wonderful moment when `She was standing inside the garden’, is described simply, but this is a layered book and there will come a time of re-reading when the pattern of sickness and health, depression and joy, is seen to extend to the pervasive presence of Mr Craven, with his bent back and warped nature.
For decades now a fashion for strictly child-oriented fiction has too often consigned adults and their problems to the background, depriving the growing middle years of an important dimension. With this in mind, I have chosen two junior novels of our own times as future classics. The first, Nina Bawden’s Carrie’s War, is in fact already eighteen years old but continuously read, partly for its popular World War II setting, partly (I am sure) for the way young and old interact. When twelve-year-old Carrie and her younger brother Nick were billeted on gloomy Mr Evans in his Welsh chemist’s shop, they were at first obsessed by the constraints laid on them by their host (they must walk on the sides of the stairs to save the carpet) but soon they were drawn by their respective sympathies to understand something of Samuel Evans’s tangle of greed and anxiety over his bedridden sister and his sister Lou’s lonely craving for affection. The contrast and conflict between the characters is paralleled by the contrast between the comfortless town shop and the warmth of the farmhouse deep in the valley where Hepzibah rules invalid, chickens and homesick children with her special brand of offhand kindness. The story is told from the children’s point of view, but because it is narrated by Carrie to her own children many years after the event, adult considerations are everywhere in the duplicated experiences, remembered and immediate.
Jan Mark has placed her young heroine, Erica Timperley, plumb in the centre of Handles. Her visit from the city to an East Anglian village is the impetus for scenes set mainly in a messy, chaotic garage where a man puzzlingly called Elsie carries on an oddly casual business. The story relies less on action than on an accumulation of small episodes contained by weather and talk, chat which shakes Erica out of her superficial judgement of the grown-ups. The story provokes as much by what it doesn’t say as by what it does; attentive readers might appreciate this – it is a quality rare in children’s fiction. Crisp colloquial language hides a careful selection of material and a genius for dialogue – not ephemeral slang but individual idiom, from LC’s elliptical, larky words and his censorious wife’s icy syllables to Auntie Joan’s dialectal pronouncements and the expressive silences of the terrible small child whose ‘handle’ is ‘the Gremlin’. Dialogue can be a persuasive factor in leading young readers to quality in fiction and, in Handles, to a future classic.
Contemporary domestic fiction is apt to date. It is easier to predict twentieth-century classics in a fantasy mode. The use of miniature figures to represent ourselves is as old as stories and Mary Norton used the Tom Thumb device brilliantly in her tales of The Borrowers, almost forty years ago. The Clocks (Pod, Homily and Arietty) are convinced that humans exist solely to supply them with scraps of coal and vegetables, pins and cotton reels for their livelihood and that bedridden Miss Sophy and her servants are the only ‘human beans’ in the world. But one day Arietty is ‘seen’ by a Boy and their troubles begin as they are driven from one precarious home to another, from an old boot in a hedge to the walls of a gamekeeper’s cottage, from a miniature village to imprisonment in the attic of the money-grubbing Platters. The fate of refugees in the 1940s and thereafter inevitably comes to mind but there is no overt moral in the five ‘Borrower’ books. Mrs May, describing to her niece in the 1940s the Edwardian country world, comments ‘Given a struggle for life people react very much alike – according to a type of course – whatever their size and station.’ Children finding out how to propel a knife-box on a stream, cook a grain-pudding over a candle-end, climb a curtain by the bobbles with the aid of wool and a pin, will realise by themselves the endurance of human personality as it is presented in miniature in these incomparable fantasies.
Ursula Moray Williams made a traditional hero from an old-fashioned push-along toy with improbable coloured stripes but a proper horse’s head. Her Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse is set in a timeless European storyland where an honest craftsman falls on bad times and the finest horse he had ever made ventures into unknown places to sell himself for his master’s survival. As he works for a brutal farmer, rescues ponies trapped in a mine, walks the high wire in a circus, patiently disciplines boisterous children and admires the better-behaved royal offspring, he is battered but indomitable, managing more than once on three legs and stowing his earnings, with some contortions of limbs, in his hollow body. It is not easy to describe convincingly a wooden toy talking on equal terms with humans and moving independently on its wheels. The rapid movement of the story leaves no time for doubt and a shrewd understanding of the way people treat outsiders gives depth to a nursery-tale with an abiding faith in the values of courage and loyalty. Forty-three years old, the tale is as fresh as it ever was and the new edition is especially welcome for Joyce Lankester Brisley’s original drawings and colour-plates which lend personality to the congenial toy, making his improbable adventures eternally credible.
There is no substitute for the pleasure of reading stories whose words and ideas have been expertly arranged to stir the imagination and to persuade children to enter into the experience of characters who may be people, animals, spirits or toys but who seem both pleasantly familiar and enticingly strange. Those of us who have the privilege of introducing books to the young need tact as well as knowledge, enthusiasm as well as discrimination, to induce them to approach what we call classics not as chores or curriculum nominations but as prime entertainment.
Margery Fisher is the author of Classics for Children and Young People, a Signal Book Guide (0 903355 20 5, £3.95, available from Thimble Press, Lockwood, Station Road, South Woodchester, Stroud, Glos GL5 5EQ). Working virtually single-handed, she has been the Editor of Growing Point since May 1962. It ceases publication next March after 30 years.
Some popular editions of the Classics mentioned:
The Princess and the Goblin, 0 14 035.029 2
The Princess and Curdle, 0 14 035.0314 George Macdonald, Puffin, £2.50 each
The Hobbit, J R R Tolkien, Harper Collins, 0 261 10200 1, £9.99; 0 261 102214, £3.99
The Little Grey Men, 0 7497 1033 0
Down the Bright Stream, 0 7497 0900 6 ‘B.B.’, ill. D Watkins-Pitchford, re-issues due from Mammoth in Jan ’92, £2.50 each
The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame Ill. Justin Todd, Gollancz, 0 575 04604 X, £7.99 pbk
Ill. John Burningham, Viking Kestrel,
0 670 80764 8, £10.99; Puffin, 014 03.1544 6, £2.50 pbk
Ill. E H Shepard, Methuen, full colour edition, 0 416 20620 4, £9.95; b/w line drawings, 0 416 39360 8, £7.95; 0 7497 0042 4, £2.99 pbk
Ill. Arthur Rackham, Methuen, 0 416 53260 8, £12.95
III. Michael Hague, Methuen, 0 416 16980 5, £9.95 Collins, 0 00 692096 9, £1.95 pbk
Just So Stories, Rudyard Kipling
Ill. by the author in 1902, Macmillan, 0 333 08793 3, 0.95
III. Michael Foreman, Puffin, 014 03.1795 3, £2.50 pbk
Pan Macmillan, 0 330 24258 X, £2.99 pbk Collins, 0 00 184425 3, £4.95
Black Beauty, Anna Sewell
Ill. Charles Keeping, Gollancz, 0 575 04847 6, £6.95 pbk
Puffin, 014 035.107 8, £2.50 pbk Collins, 0 00 693398 X, £2.25 pbk
The Secret Garden, Frances Hodgson Burnett
Ill. Shirley Hughes, Gollancz, 0 575 04168 4, £10.95
Ill. Pamela Kay, Heinemann, 0 434 92989 1, £12.95
Ill. Jenny Williams, Dent, 0 460 051016, £8.50
Collins, 0 00 693033 6, £2.25 pbk Puffin, 014 035.004 7, £2.50 pbk
Carrie’s War, Nina Bawden
Ill. Faith Jaques, Gollancz, 0 575 016310, £7.95
Puffin, 0 14 03.0689 7, £2.50 pbk
Handles, Jan Mark, Viking, 0 670 80536 X, £7.99;, Puffin, 0 14 03.1587 X, £1.99 pbk
The Borrowers Omnibus, Mary Norton, ill. Diana Stanley, Dent, 0 460 88044 6, £12.95
The Borrowers Avenged, Mary Norton, ill. Pauline Baynes, Viking, 0 7226 5804 4, £8.50
Adventures of the Little Wooden Horse, Ursula Moray Williams Ill. Joyce Lankester Brisley, Harrap, 0 245 60213 5, £6.95 Puffin, 0 14 03.0125 9, £2.25 pbk