Sunday, 26 April 2009

Unpacking childish things

This and this got me thinking how one of the many wonderful things about having children is that they provide an excuse to bring out those childish things you'd put away many years before - books, toys, games. Through these you're given the opportunity, if you choose to take it, to re-live your childhood in some small way.

My eldest about a year ago became old enough to enjoy proper stories. However, it proved surprisingly difficult to find a contemporary story book that was substantial enough to provide a decent bedtime read (say, 10 to 15 minutes) but not so long that it spilt over into the following evening. Then I remembered the library of Ladybird story books that I'd loved as a child. Mum, rather miraculously (but on reflection, predictably), still had them.

It's been deeply satisfying to revisit these neat little stiff-backed books with their traditional fairy tales. I guess it gives you some insight into memory to say that the illustrations have provoked the strongest resonances. The pastel-coloured boots made from the supplest velvety suede fashioned overnight by elves, their pale cold little legs clothed in rags (Elves and the Shoemaker). Beast lying in his garden under a rosebush, the dew no doubt beginning to chill him as he died from a broken heart (Beauty and the Beast). The evil dwarf prostrated, toes skywards, having been felled and killed by a single blow from a vengeful bear-prince (Snow White and Rose Red). An ogre so furious that rage made his nostrils flare and hair curl (Jack and the Beanstalk).

It was a going-back to when the spell was cast, making you ever-after susceptible to the enchantment of stories. Not just imagining this moment but in a small way partaking of it again.

Inevitably you think about them as well as wonder at them. The morality of these stories is interesting. Morals are present but it never feels as if they provide the raison d'etre. Mostly the endings are merely happy rather than being morally justified by the actions of the protagonist. Things turn out (very) well if you own a cat with an extravagant talent for bullshitting (Puss-in-Boots). Or one that is good at catching mice and happens to do it for an Eastern potentate (Dick Whittington and his Cat). Or if you happen to be a lazy sod who nevertheless has a talent for burglary (Jack and the Beanstalk).

This to me seems more realistic than some contemporary stories which have a real world setting but are weighed down by ponderous moral baggage as substantial as cardboard.

The other striking thing is the refreshingly brutal, often murderous, acts of retribution. Dwarves, trolls, witches are all fatally beaten, drowned, thrown to their deaths without a second thought. And certainly without observing due process and the presumption of innocence. Children relish this.

I'm conscious here of more than likely echoing some of the observations to be found in Bruno Bettelheim's Uses of Enchantment, a book I enjoyed tremendously when I read it over twenty years ago. I remember someone telling me subsequently that it was 'wrong'. I can't remember why; or who it was; but I do remember they had some academic claim to be right. I wonder where the current orthodoxy lies?


Brit said...

Yes, I'm interested in these old fairy tales, especially the weird amoral ones. I keep meaning to look into Freudian and other interpretations of them but have never quite got round to it.

I prefer it when they're somewhat oblique - Japanese children's films are still like this, whereas, say, Disney's messages are blatant and repetitive.

Bunny Smedley said...

Your evocation of those Ladybird illustrations made me laugh! One of the most history-literate adults I know still can - and indeed frequently does - describe a favourite few illustrations from the Ladybird biography of Oliver Cromwell - not quite a fairy tale, although as my friend and I long since agreed to disagree regarding the Protector's, ahem, merits, perhaps that's open to debate. What's not open to debate, on the other hand, is that the clear narrative line, together with the pictures, helped set my friend off on a lifetime of fruitful historical enquiry. I wonder how many contemporary children's history books would have that effect?

As for Bettelheim, it seems that he's 'wrong' for various reasons. First of all, his theories regarding the origins of autism are largely discredited, and obviously, if a person's wrong about one thing, it stands to reason that he's wrong about everything else, too. Secondly, Bettelheim - an Austrian Jew who spent time in Dachau and Buchenwald before emigrating to the USA in 1939 - made the mistake of writing thoughtfully about the Holocaust in terms which don't entirely fit with the prevailing consensus view. Thirdly, Freud himself is now 'wrong', largely because he was a man of his own time and reflected in his analysis of the world his culture's sillinesses and blind spots - and, as we have seen, if someone's wrong about A, then it stands to reason ... (etc)

Personally, my take on Freud is not unlike Cowling's on Marx: which is to say, Freudianism is not so much untrue as, for certain purposes and in limited respects, true and unimportant. And yet I still think 'The Uses of Enchantment' is a fascinating book. (Some of Marina Warner's work on fairy tales is interesting, too.) Clearly, whatever specific mode of digestion and analysis one prefers, there's a gravity, occasional shock and pervasive yet hard-to-pin-down fascination in those old tales that speaks to older readers at least as generously as it does to younger ones. And again, that's something one can very rarely say about more contemporary children's literature.

Sorry to drone on at such length - as ever, though, you produced a thought-provoking post!

Gaw said...

Brit's mention of Freud jogged me to remember that Bettelheim's approach was psychoanalytic, which would make him a wrong 'un for some. Thanks Bunny for the additional context. I like the Cowling quote applied to Freud.

I think, Bunny, that what you say about the Ladybird books providing a grounding for an interest in history is very perceptive, certainly in my case. The Uses of Enchantment must have been one of the first academic books I read other than school textbooks. I'd gone to the trouble of tracking it down as I wanted to look back with a more educated eye on the fairy stories, myths and fantasy literature that provided the foundation for my growing fascination with history.

I must re-read it - I remember it being a full of ideas and therefore great fun for the 17-year old me. I'm looking forward to revisiting Middle Earth and Narnia in due course too!

Brit said...

Oh yes, Freud - like Marx, Chomsky and Gordon Brown - is one of the great Failed Intellectuals, but Freudian interpretations of things are always interesting as curios.

Gaw said...

Funnily enough, I have a hunch that Brown's personality may be one of the few susceptible to a Freudian analysis.