Symbolism of The Child

Child As Symbol Of The Future

When considering the symbolism of the child, pair with the elderly person, who represents the past. In popular imagination, we consider life as a circle, in which the very elderly return to a kind of childhood. Live long enough and we become transformed. We acquire a new simplicity. This idea comes from Cirlot, who thought that if you dreamed of a child, some great spiritual change would be about to take place under favourable circumstance.

Nietzsche deals with this idea in relation to the ‘three transformations’ in Thus Spake Zarathustra. Nietzsche wrote about the process of spiritual transformation. He believed there were three distinct phases of self-actualisation, represented by:

  1. The camel — the hump on its back represents your burdens, conquests and scars
  2. The lion — in this stage you want to be free and be lord of your own desert
  3. The child — you can’t be fully mature until you recapture the serious play which defined your youth.

Child As Angel

Susan Beatrice Pearse (19 January 1878 – 1980) was a British illustrator of children’s books best known for the Ameliaranne series of books.

Children often appear as angels in Christian iconography. (This is why cherubs have wings.) But as noted in the tweet below, cherubs have a certain creepiness to them. This is because of their history as scary creatures.

https://twitter.com/CateSpice/status/1228175400624254979

The Kewpie dolls (and related merchandising) were clearly modelled on classical images of cherubs.

Rose O’Neill was the first American Woman Illustrator to be published. The Kewpies were a huge success for decades.

The Ideal Child Of The Imagination

When parents are expecting a child, the child as a personality exists only in the imagination. This lasts for a few years into parenting. I remember the words of a mother whose own child had died saying that one of the most difficult parts of this grief was, to her, seeing preschoolers. The reason she gave? This is the time in a child’s life when anything at all is still possible. We have so many hopes and dreams for our young children. We never imagine that they won’t make it to adulthood.

This theme tends to be covered in work for adult readers. The short stories “The Child” by Ali Smith and by “Ernestine and Kit” by Kevin Barry are macabre tales about how adults become disappointed in children.

However, look outside the English speaking world and you occasionally find a story for kids with this exact theme: An exploration of the difference between what a parent hopes for and what they actually get. An example is Ivory Coast picture book Le Bébé de Madame Guénon [Mrs Monkey’s Baby] published 2009.

A monkey mother worries about her friends’ reactions to the beautiful baby she has just given birth to. Will their compliments be sincere? And will their judgment be fair? Visits and compliments do not appease her anxiety: she must do everything to make her baby even more beautiful! …The story plays
on the animal’s parade and the repetition of visit scenes, but its gist is indeed the terrifying anguish of mothers who dream of an ideal child.

The World Through Picture Books

Child As The Opposite Of Work

As Diane Purkiss points out in her book Troublesome Things, ideas about the child changed in the Romantic era (approx, 1800-1850), when childhood became a safe refuge from the harsh realities of life. Childhood became the opposite of work. It was thought that the very happiest way to spend a childhood was safe, carefree in the country. 

But the Romantic invention of the child as the holy innocent coincided with growing child poverty, urbanisation and child prostitution.

While Wordsworth and Dickens were extolling the purity of the child, actual children were working from dusk til dawn. Victorians were faced with reconciling this harsh reality against their imaginary, idealised version of childhood.

See also: City Kids, Country Kids in Children’s Literature

Child as Idle Mischief Maker

1840s England was especially worried about idle children, especially street children. This was a class and race issue. It was thought that without something to occupy children, they would get up to mischief. 

Child As Cherub

Children originate in the Hebrew Bible as kerubim and often appear as cherubs in Baroque grotesque.

Putto is an Italian concept similar to the cherub but is not religious in origin. (The plural is putti.) The main difference is whether or not the cherubic creature has wings. Whereas all cherubs have wings, not all putti have them. In Baroque art the putto came to represent the omnipresence of God.

Some fauns are also depicted as cherubs but with hooves.

These characters are almost always boys. Significantly, the Italian word putto comes from the Latin word putus, meaning “boy” or “child” — boy as every child. (Boys are regular humans but girls are extra.)

Interestingly, the word cherub comes from kerub. Kerubim were completely different from today’s cherubs — imposing winged creatures who existed to guard the thrones of Gods and kings as well as the Mesopotamian Tree of Life. These Kerubim are described in the Book of Ezekiel (Old Testament). They are scary chimeras, each with a different head: lion, bull, eagle and human. These kerubim later became symbols for the four evangelists, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (New Testament).

This is interesting because scary mythical creatures are quite often evolved by storytellers into something much more tame and pleasant. In this case, scary winged creatures become chubby-cheeked children. In the case of scary femme-coded mythical creatures, storytellers turn them into sexual objects. Sirens are an excellent case study of this. Witches, too, are often rendered as sexy rather than scary old hags in modern storytelling.

The witch/kerubim genealogy together demonstrate how women have been disempowered, alongside children, across the history of myth: Sexually alluring young women have had their scariness stripped away. Likewise, cherubim have had their adult-sized ferocity stripped away. Iconography without ferocity is more comfortable.

Freud’s View Of Children

Influential psychoanalysts have influenced our collective view of the child.

Erich Fromm succinctly summarises Freud’s thoughts on children in general. See what you make of this:

An assumption Freud makes about the nature of dreams is that these irrational desires which are expressed as fulfilled in the dream are rooted in our childhood, that they once were alive when we were children, that they have continued an underground existence, and have come to life in our dreams. This view is based on Freud’s general assumption of the irrationality fo the child.

To him the child has many asocial impulses. Since it lacks the physical strength and the knowledge to act on its impulses, it is harmless and no one needs to protect himself against its evil designs. But if one focuses on the quality of its strivings rather than on their results in practice, the young child is an asocial and amoral being. This holds true in the first place for its sexual impulses. According to Freud, all those sexual strivings which, when they appear in the adult, are called perversions are part of the normal sexual development of the child. In the infant the sexual energy (libido) centers around the mouth, later it is connected with defecation, and eventually it centers around the genitals. The young child has intense sadistic and masochistic strivings. It is an exhibitionist and also a little “peeping Tom.” It is not capable of loving anyone but is narcissistic, loving only itself to the exclusion of anyone else. It is intensely jealous and filled with destructive impulses against its rivals. The sexual life of the little boy and the little girl is dominated by incestuous strivings. They have a strong sexual attachment to the parent of the opposite sex and feel jealous of the parent of the same sex and hate him or her. Only the fear of retribution from the hated rival makes the child suppress these incestuous wishes. By identifying himself with the commands and prohibitions of the father, the little boy overcomes his hate against him and replaces it with the wish to be like him. The development of conscience is the result of the “Oedipus complex”.

Erich Fromm, The Forgotten Language

If Freud seemed to hate kids, bear this in mind: During the Victorian age, it was widely thought that children were wholly ‘innocent’. Children had no sexuality and were considered incapable of doing or thinking ‘bad’ things.

This was Freud trying to swing that pendulum the other way.

Jung’s Divine Child Archetype

If you’re reading a story with a child in it, and the child doesn’t seem to be a rounded person, functioning more like a bearer of ideology and ethics, this is Jung’s Divine Child archetype.

Jung noticed that all around the world we find stories about amazing children who survive against the odds:

  • Baby Jesus in Christianity
  • Child Moses in Judaism
  • Heracles in Greek tradition
  • Horus in Egypt
  • Buddha
  • Krishna

But the Divine Child archetype has a reach in culture outside the stories of myth and religion. Mei from Studio Ghibli’s Totoro is an excellent example of the Divine Child archetype. 

How is the Divine Child different from a regular child? We might invoke Northrop Frye here, who placed characters on a continuum from heroic to stupider than the audience. The Divine Child is basically a regular kid with the ability to come through against all odds. We love stories like that.

The Divine Child can’t easily be plotted on Northrop Frye’s continuum because they are both vulnerable and invincible at once. Stories starring the Divine Child are reassuring because there is a contract with the audience from the start — although this character is sufficiently vulnerable to make a good story, their secret superpowers will allow them to win out in the end. This story will end happily.

Jung considered the child as coniunctio between the unconscious and consciousness. If you dream of a child that’s meant to indicate some great spiritual change is about to take place under favourable circumstances.

The idea that we are surrounded by the extraordinary yet remain blind to it is a pretty common theme in picture books, in which the archetype of The (Jungian) Child is useful as a character who hasn’t lost their wonder yet, after being subjected to the monotony of life with adult responsibilities. “Children who notice things adults don’t” could be a subcategory of children’s literature in its own right. Think of all those fantasy portals, never discovered by adults, and all those fantasy creatures. Are they fantasy or real? Are they only real if we see them? What does it even mean to be ‘real’?

Shaun Tan makes use of this trope in “The Lost Thing” (adults don’t notice what children do) but inverts it for “Rules of Summer” (in which children are too busy arguing and watching TV to really enjoy the magic of a summer childhood).

There is some realworld truth to the idea that children see things adults cannot. Professor Alison Gopnik specialises in child psychology. In this podcast from All In The Mind, Gopnik explains exactly how children are better at noticing than adults. Babies and young children are built to explore the world and learn about it, whereas adults have better control of our focus. Therefore, as humans grow older, we become less good at learning about the world and better at executive functioning. Our powers of observation diminish accordingly.

Child As Heroic Figure

The heroic child liberates the world from monsters. A lot of picture books feature this kind of child. Mostly they are ridding their own minds from imaginary monsters rather than saving The World, but within the world of the story these monsters do exist.

A child is a small person. He lingers small just for a while, then he becomes an adult. He grows up without even noticing it.

Beatrice Alemagna, What is a child?

Child as Coward

Go back to the Ancient Greeks, however, and they thought that cowardice separated adult from child: Adults were brave, children were cowardly. Socrates pointed out that our fears originate in childhood, and that we fear death because the child in us is frightened of hobgoblins.

In other words, if an adult is frightened, it must be the ‘child within’, not the actual adult. In many cultures and subcultures, fear is not an acceptable emotion for an adult to express. The closest we can come is to attribute fear to an inner child.

Ancient thinkers really did think that fear was a demon, and in order to escape fear, one had to escape actual demons.

Child As Eternal Life

Alchemy is an ancient art practised in Ancient Egypt, China, India and more ‘recently’ in medieval Europe. Alchemy concerned with two main things: working with real substances and working on one’s own spiritual / personal development / enlightenment. It was highly secretive and full of symbolism. At the heart of this art is the belief that there exists a mysterious legendary substance called the philosopher’s stone. This object is said to transform base metals such as lead into gold.

In Alchemy, the child wearing a crown or regal garments is a symbol of the philosopher’s stone. Important: the gold itself isn’t just gold — the gold symbolises enlightenment and eternal life.

It makes sense that children become associated with eternal life because if it were possible to never grow old, we’d probably remain as children. Although disease and circumstance does take the life of children, we associate death with old age.

The stand-out example of Child as Eternal Life is of course Peter and Wendy. J.M. Barrie did something interesting by flipping dominant ideas about the tragedy of failing to become an adult. Since antiquity, failure to become an adult had been seen as a tragedy. We see this in Greek and Roman mythology. To remain childlike is a tragedy because to remain a child is to remain forever dependent upon others. But then J.M. took that idea and flipped it — now, to become an adult was the tragedy because adulthood meant you lost your true self. It’s interesting to observe that this fantasy of perpetual childhood has been left behind (for now) to languish in the 20th century. This article explains that since copyright expired on Peter and Wendy in 2008, we’ve seen a surge of retellings in which to remain a child is rendered, almost unanimously, as dark and creepy. Peter Pan is now the villain.

Woman As Child

Patriarchy works by rendering women as children in the public imagination. Until very recently, women were considered children in the eyes of the law. It’s not difficult to find evidence of this view right across storytelling.

To make a more universal statement, however, the hero’s journey provides a classic example of the difference between men and women across mythic stories. Men leave the house, encounter a variety of friends and foes then eventually prove themselves in battle. He’ll have weapons of some kind at his disposal.

The female corollary is childbirth. The heroine of these stories never leaves home. She has no weapons at her disposal, entirely vulnerable to her own physiology. The pregnant and birthing woman’s vulnerability renders her childlike. In both stories, the man and the woman come close to death. Both offer up their bodies for the sake of some greater good. But because the hero gets weapons, gets to make decisions, he is afforded symbolic autonomy.

Take a close look at how weapons are used in stories, who gets them, who uses them. Next, consider the genealogy of modern gun culture.

Header image: William Blake’s David Delivered out of Many Waters, c.1805. It is an illustration to Psalm 18, in which David (at the bottom of the image with his arms stretched wide) calls out to God for salvation from his enemies. Christ appears above, riding upon seven cherubim (angels), not one as in the text.

FURTHER READING

What is a child?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.