There was once an old woman who left the city to get away from all the noise and confusion. Out in the country she found a small house by a creek with a big shade tree in the back yard, writes Janet Lunn, in a town-dweller moves to the countryside where strange things happen kind of tale.
— Duck Cakes For Sale, 1989
White people love to be outside. But not everyone knows that another thing they like to do is make people feel bad for wanting to watch sports on TV or play videogames. While it would be easy to get angry at white people for this, remember it is hard wired in their head that the greatest thing a person can do in their free time is to hike/walk/bike outdoors.
What did Enid Blyton and E. Nesbit have in common? Apart from a dislike of only children and a shared love of ginger beer, they both wrote stories about groups of children going out into the countryside and finding adventure. In these natural environments the children came across good people and bad people (policemen, shopkeepers etc, smugglers etc.) and then there were ‘gypsies’, who readers understood were instant opponents.
The four children encounter gypsies in chapter 3 of Five Children and It. They get sick of their baby brother and wish someone, anyone, would take him. So the Psammead arranges for that to happen, and no they can’t take the wish back. But since the wishes only last until sunset, this chapter gives E. Nesbit a chance to dismantle a popular anglo belief at the time: That gypsies stole children. Much like the Elf on the Shelf, who it was said kept an eye on children even in parental absence, if children did not do as required it was often said that if they were not careful the gypsies would come and get them.
Today, calling the Roma or the Irish Travellers ‘gypsies’ is very similar to calling Native Americans ‘Indian’. The word ‘Gypsy’ is often used in a derogatory way and is based on the mistaken idea that gypsies came from Egypt.
There are two main, distinct groups of travellers — the Roma and the Irish travellers. They are both nomadic but are separate. Romany gypsies have roots in India but Irish Travellers are, well, Irish.
Irish travellers speak a language called Cant, Gammon or Shelta. The hit UKTV show Big Fat Gypsy Wedding focuses on a group of Irish Travellers and is considered to be a poor representation of travellers. Back in the 1940s these people were called ‘Tinkers’. They became travellers due to a history of discrimination against the Irish, and may have had land taken from them.
The Romani language is based on Punjabi/Hindi.
The word ‘Romani’ has nothing to do, by the way, with the country Romania, or the Ancient Romans.
I’m no Enid Blyton apologist when it comes to word echo and other matters of style, but Enid Blyton never wrote the phrase ‘lashings of ginger beer’. This phrase was used in a popular parody called Five Go Mad In Dorset, and is now often mistakenly attributed to the author herself.
Enid Blyton did use the word ‘lashings’, and there was a lot of ginger beer. I also remember lemonade, but what was it the children were actually drinking? Well, it wasn’t 7UP. The lemonade consumed by the Famous Five would have been sugar and lemon juice mixed in cold water, not the very high sugar carbonated variety. That’s simple enough to make. What about the ginger beer? Was it alcoholic? Were the children getting drunk, imagining those pixies, goblins and mushroom rings with lands at the tops of trees and chairs that grew wings?
In Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons, the Swallows pretend that they’re drinking ‘grog’ instead of ginger beer. (This is all part of their pirate fantasy.)
To make traditionally brewed, homemade ginger beer, you will also need some lemons. Lemons plus ginger root and sugar and cream of tartar and brewer’s yeast. You can find a recipe for it here. The fizziness comes from the fermentation process, and required about four days to make — these are cooking skills which have been lost today. But our guts coevolved with the bacteria found in fermented foods and we should probably to go back to eating more of them to achieve well-balanced guts. That fermented stuff would not have been as sweet as today’s beverages by far, despite requiring quite a bit of sugar — that’s because bacteria eat the sugars in order to populate. (Hence, traditionally made sauerkraut is so sour — the bacteria has eaten any fructose out of it.)
There probably was a bit of alcohol in it if left for weeks, but if left for less than a week the alcohol is negligible. Basically, we don’t really know if Joe, Bessie and Fanny were getting pissed when they took a picnic into the woods, because we didn’t know how long it had been brewed for.
Edith Nesbit was also a fan of ginger beer. It makes me wince when Robert uses it to wash sand out of Lamb’s eyes, but remember it wasn’t the super fizzy stuff you’re probably thinking of:
The thoughtful Robert had brought one solid brown bottle of ginger-beer with him, relying on a thirst that had never yet failed him. This had to be uncorked hurriedly — it was the only wet thing within reach, and it was necessary to wash the sand out of the Lamb’s eyes somehow. Of course the ginger hurt horribly, and he howled more than ever. And, amid his anguish of kicking, the bottle was upset and the beautiful ginger-beer frothed out into the sand and was lost for ever.
— Five Children and It
Australians were busy making their own ginger fizzy drinks, lest you think it was limited to the British Isles:
Food In The Work Of Enid Blyton
Blyton’s most prolific period of writing took place during the war era when food rationing meant that the majority of people in England were eating less than they had throughout the whole of the twentieth century. Following the outbreak of WW2, food rationing began in January 1940 and continued until 1954. The average weekly rations consisted of one shilling and sixpence worth of meat, eight ounces of sugar, four ounces of butter or fat, one egg, one ounce of cheese, with jam and honey also heavily rationed. Fresh vegetables were in short supply, unless grown in the home vegetable garden.
While the Famous Five were consuming fat red radishes, their readers were being fed banana sandwiches made with parsnips and banana essence or carrot tart glazed with lemon jelly to make a pudding, and while the Secret Seven breakfasted off well-buttered home-baked bread with chunky marmalade, their devotees never even saw fruit like oranges and bananas and had to make do with the infamous Woolton Pie, a combination of carrots, parsnips, turnips, and potatoes, covered with white sauce and pastry.
[…] Blyton can hardly be portraying the period realistically. […] the original appeal of Blyton’s food fantasies was intensified by the reader’s knowledge that their own family teatime was never likely to be as scrumptious as the feast Blyton served for them. And, for contemporary readers, the appeal lies in the huge quantities and the exoticism of the homemade foods in her narratives which, because of healthy-eating discourses and the lack of time generally available in contemporary households to produce such meals, are usually denied them. From this perspective it can be seen that a large proportion of the readers’ enjoyment is vicarious, a form of voyeurism, a chance to experience gluttony second-hand.
— Carolyn Daniels, Voracious Children: Who Eats Whom In Children’s Literature
Enid Blyton and Froebel Training
Enid Blyton would have had all the skills of a good housekeeper, even if she preferred to write instead. As a student teacher Blyton received Froebel training, which encourages housekeeping, cooking, gardening and farming as a means of expression for young children.
Blyton’s ideal was one in which the earth-mother or a substitute earth mother provides food (preferably home-grown) for her cubs.
Mothers in Enid Blyton’s books tend to be plump, good at home-making and cheerful. While the children were out having their adventures, we can guess at what the mothers were doing: They were in the kitchen, fermenting fizzy beverages and making fruit cakes.
Generally speaking, a lot of thought goes into choosing character names. Sometimes a name is chosen because it is appropriate to the age of the character, culture and era. Sometimes the name is aesthetically pleasing. Sometimes the name is symbolic.
NEW NAME, NEW SELF
When Walter White changes his name to Heisenberg, he has created an entire alter ego. Breaking Bad is a modern superhero story. We are familiar with superheroes, ever since Super-man/Clark Kent. This is such obvious symbolism it doesn’t hold up to much more scrutiny than that.
LOSS OF NAME, LOSS OF TRUE SELF
This is a pervasive idea throughout literature, even though we obviously don’t subscribe to it in real life. Women in the West are still largely expected (and do) change surnames when marrying a man, yet we don’t believe she has lost a part of herself. When Chinese speakers immigrate to English speaking countries they quite often adopt a name which is pronounceable and memorable for native English speakers. Do those immigrants with several names feel they have lost a part of themselves? Or do they feel their name is simply the label they attach to themselves in certain contexts?
How many names do you have?
My name (Lynley) is a ridiculous tongue-twister to native Japanese speakers, so while I lived in Japan my name was switched to my last name (Stace). It’s common for even young Japanese people to go by their last name in Japan — it seems to be a bit of a lucky dip whether you’re known by your first or your last name, whereas in my home country (New Zealand) young people very rarely go by their last name, unless there’s a specific reason for doing so. (One of my brothers made friends with all of the Davids in his year so he, too, went by the name Stace for clarity purposes.) I have never gone by our last name Stace outside Japan, though I like to keep it for use online. I felt nothing about me changed when my moniker changed.
That doesn’t tend to be true when it comes to fictional characters.
Take the Hayao Miyazaki film Spirited Away. Chihiro becomes Sen — the Chinese reading of a shortening of her Japanese name — until she can escape from the enslaving world ruled by the bath woman.
After Yubaba steals part of Chihiro’s name, Haku warns Sen not to forget her former name or she will be trapped in the spirit world forever. Sen must remember the qualities that make her who she is and remain true to them, even though her name, the one word that defines her, has changed. Sen succeeds in keeping her identity and also helps Haku regain his, ultimately freeing them both. Haku is living proof of the dangers inherent in forgetting one’s true identity. Names are of fundamental importance in the spirit world, and those in power keep their control by stealing and changing names. Only those characters with the inner strength to hold onto their names and identities can free themselves.
— Spark Notes
After The First Death is young adult thriller from the 1970s by Robert Cormier. This story contains similar name symbolism — characters forfeit their names.
Part One opens with a first person narrator who feeds us his name in dribs and drabs.
Part Two switches point of view. These Middle Eastern terrorists have lost their names entirely, trained to forget them by means of dedicating themselves to the cause. Cormier is careful to emphasise that these terrorist, foreign boys have names — or had them. This turns them into individuals. The sociopathic terrorist among the group shows us his true colours by angering a waitress when he chooses to ignore her wishes to be called by her own name rather than one he has designated. By taking her name he demonstrates his ability to turn off empathy. This guy is therefore posited from the beginning as a cold-blooded killer.
“That will be all, Myra,” Artkin said.
“What did you say?” she asked.
“I said, ‘That will be all, Myra.”
“My name’s not Myra,” the girl said.
Artkin smiled at her. “Of course it isn’t,” he said. But his voice suggested the opposite, his voice and his smile. They hinted wickedly of deep secrets.
“Well, it isnt,” she said. “My name’s Bonnie, although the priest didn’t like it because there’s no Saint Bonnie.”
“Please give us the check, Myra,” Artkin said, voice cold now, uninterested.
“I said my name’s not Myra,” she muttered as she totaled up the bill.
“Myra’s a nice name. It’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Artkin said.
Her face reddened, accentuating the acne, the pimples and small scabs. Artkin could do that to people, intimidate them, draw them into conversations they did not want to be drawn into, force the into confrontations.
“Think about it, Myra. How old were you when you were baptized? Two weeks, two months? Do you remember being baptized with the name Bonnie? Of course not. It’s what people have told you. Have you ever seen your birth certificate? Not he thing they give you when you go to City Hall for a copy, but the original? The one that says your name is Myra. You’ve never seen it, have you? But that doesn’t mean it does not exist. You have never seen me before but I exist. I have existed all this time. I might have been there when you were baptized, Myra.”
She stood there for a moment, the check in her hand, hesitant, doubtful, her eyes wary, and Miro knew that this was what Artkin had worked to do: create this split second of doubt and hesitation. He knew that he had reached his mark, drawn blood. Then the moment vanished. The girl flung the check on the table.
“You’re nuts,” she said, and turned away, shaking her head at all the strange people loose in the world.
— After The First Death by Robert Cormier
NAMES AS CHARACTER SYMBOLS
A symbol is a packet of highly compressed meaning. These symbols highlight and communicate different aspects of the characters/story world/plot. A subcategory of the literary symbol is the ‘character symbol’.
A character’s name is a children’s story is quite often symbolic. Symbolic names are also common in comedy, but are less frequently seen elsewhere, in stories that aim for mimesis (realism). In the real world, after all, people’s personalities are not connected to their names. (And even if your teacher is called Mrs Bellringer and your dermatologist is called Dr Healsmith, that isn’t useful in a suspenseful crime novel.)
Also known as:
a label name
When the name of a fictional character describes their personality or occupation, it is called an aptronym. Or sometimes aptonym (without the ‘r’)
SYMBOLIC NAMES IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
Enid Blyton loved label names — think Watzisname, Dame Washalot, Silky and Moonface. from The Magic Faraway Tree series. These names were very literal. Blyton steered clear of ironic symbolism.
The Seriously Extraordinary Diary Of Pig by Emer Stamp features some farmers called Mr and Mrs Sandal, who happen to be vegetarian. This is a symbolic name for the adult co-reader, as I’m not sure young readers would always know how heavily sandals are associated with vegetarianism — mostly because this was true back in the 1970s, I think.
The entire cast of Mr Men and The Smurfs
Beautiful Bella from the Twilight series
Some names are symbolic mainly because of the history of stories that precede them. In children’s literature, having Little before your name means chances are slim of you ever becoming Big. You’ll probably die.
DO SYMBOLIC NAMES COMPROMISE REALISM?
The middle grade novel A Long Way From Chicago by Richard Peck is filled with characters with colourful names. Early in the story we meet the Cowgills. The child narrator lampshades the symbolism of the name by writing: “It may have been just a coincidence that a family named Cowgill owned the dairy. I never knew.” This lampshading is necessary because Peck is basically going for nostalgic historical realism. It also leads to some humour.
It works because sometimes a real person does seem to have a symbolic name, in which case it’s comically coincidental. Donald Trump springs to mind. I do know a teacher called Mrs Bellringer.
Writers of popular adult stories seem to subscribe to this view, though symbolic names for adult characters tend to take on a different form — the main characters in True Detective are called Hart and Cohle, which is symbolically linked (Heart and Coal) to their personalities and character arcs. This weaker connection is safer if you’re hoping to avoid metafiction.
Another very similar example occurs in The Sixth Sense, starring a main character called Malcolm Crowe. Crowe is dead, so one could argue Shyamalan is giving us a big clue in with the character’s name. Cole Sear: “Cole” compared to “coal” which is black like death. “Sear” compared to “seer,” someone who has keen insight. Of course, Cole has the insight that Malcolm is a ghost (“I see dead people”).
SYMBOLIC NAMES IN STORIES FOR ADULTS
Stories for adults also feature characters with symbolic names, especially if they are comedies. Will Freeman of About A Boy is one example. Tied down to no one, this man-child really does live under the illusion of free will.
I have conflicted views about Enid Blyton, but Thirteen O’Clock story is relatively free of the problems I (and many others) have taken issue with in these slightly more enlightened times. We still have a story in which a young patriarch-in-training helps an older female character out by tending to her minor injury and finding a lost cat, which some may read more generously as an example of feminine caring.
All that aside, this was one of my most favourite books as a preschooler — that lady sure knew how to tell a tale to children. Mine is the 1974 version illustrated by Tom Barling in very 70s style. The story itself may have been written much earlier, though Enid Blyton was writing right up until 1975, and it’s not easy to find the years in which specific short stories were published.
WONDERFULNESS OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK
Enid Blyton was well-schooled in a kind of superstitious mysticism which she made great use of in her fantasy stories. Fairies, goblins, pixies, brownies, witches, portals into other lands… In this story, she makes use of a very old superstition surrounding the number 13. What’s the basic back story of this unlucky number?
Oddly, superstition around the number 13 derives from various unrelated cultures around the world, not just one. This may have something to do with lunar-solar calenders, in which there are 12 point something ‘months’ per solar year. This gives a culture 12 ‘months’ plus a bit of a month (the thirteenth) per year.
The number 13 may rather disturbingly be linked to a form of ancient misogyny: In ancient cultures, the number 13 represented femininity, because it corresponded to the number of lunar (menstrual) cycles in a year (13 x 28 = 364 days). The theory is that, as the solar calendar triumphed over the lunar, the number thirteen became anathema, because (obv!) periods are evil.
In modern times, even people who actively avoid the number 13 probably don’t really think of that reason, but superstitious types still manage to find reasons to believe that there is something inherently wrong about the number.
Other authors have taken the number 13 and used it in a plot device for genres such as thriller and horror, but Blyton, in writing for children, pairs this rather sinister tradition with the childlike tradition of blowing dandelion ‘clocks’ in order to tell the time. (Blyton had no significant qualms about refusing to use literature as a conduit to a rounded scientific education.) In Blyton’s story, ‘once in a blue moon’ means that the moon literally turns blue.
The thing I loved most about this book was the thing I also loved about the Faraway Tree series, in which Blyton’s wood whispers ‘Wisha wisha’ as the wind blows through the trees. This phrase gave me a deliciously thrilling feeling as a young reader. In Thirteen O’Clock, Blyton not only encourages word play with phrases such as ‘Hoona-looki-allo-pie’ but has created another marvellous phrase of frisson: ‘The witches are coming! The witches are coming!’ This had me hiding under my blankets.
NOTES ON THE ILLUSTRATION OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK
What makes the illustrations in this book seem distinctively 1970s? The 1970s was a decade wedged between a time of great printing advancements, with the widespread introduction of colour printing in the 1960s, and the beginning of digital illustration used (at least for some parts of the process) by many illustrators working today. Illustrators were working in colour, but they were also drawing and painting by hand.
ILLUSTRATIONS OF THE 1970S
It was in the 1960s that a new type of picture book emerged — those in which illustrations dominated the text. This particular book isn’t one such example — in fact, this book is more accurately a richly illustrated short story, since the story can exist in its own right (and indeed does, inside various anthologies) without these pictures.
One thing that makes Tom Barling’s illustrations seem specifically 1970s is the strong use of line. Another illustrator working around this time was Pat Hutchins, who published Rosie’s Walk in 1968, just a few years earlier. In Rosie’s Walk, too, the influence of folk art is strong; line exists not only to add form and shadow to objects but also to act as a decoration in its own right. In Thirteen O’Clock, likewise, there is no attempt made at any kind of aerial perspective; leaves on a tree in the distance are depicted in detail, even though the unseen viewer is too far away from that tree to realistically perceive anything more than a green clump.
To provide some rest for the eyes, Barling was making good use of white space — as modern illustrators are still doing today — the roads and the sky are white, and there is an area of blank reserved for the text on every double spread.
Tom Barling has of course dressed Sandy in 1970s fashion, with tight jeans that flare at the bottom and a wide belt. He wears his hair long (which happens to be in fashion again for adolescent boys, but isn’t always). It’s interesting to look at how various illustrators of children’s books deal with fashions of the day; if we dress our characters in clothing specific to the year or decade, this will place our stories firmly inside that decade even if the story itself is more universal than that. Is there an ‘unmarked’ wardrobe illustrators can use to avoid decade-placement as much as possible? Certainly, some illustrators rely upon stock clothing for their characters. Mercer Mayer is a good example of that. Though he has illustrated the Little Critter books over decades, his Mother Critter still wears a long dress and apron; the main character is still wearing pyjamas with an unbuttonable backside in them. Mayer’s characters are in fact middle class, 1950s, white America, and sometimes even stretch to Amish (for the mum) but for some reason a disproportionate number of illustrators hold onto lesser versions of this same milieu when illustrating modern books for children. I think it’s because we tend to idolise the era. (Hence Mad Men, which cleverly subverted our expectations.)
Is there a normcore fashion for picture books? Even Shirley Hughes, who places no value in creating Pinterest-worthy interiors or youthful faces (even in children) or dressing her characters up in high-fashion places her characters in a specific era: as Frances Spufford said of her Alfie series, the mother ‘is a frizzy-haired CND-supporting social worker from about 1985’. Though Spufford also points out that child readers won’t assume this about her. In fact, non-British readers — and readers who were ourselves children in the 1980s — probably won’t know this about her — I had to look up CND — fyi, it stands for Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which picked up in the 1980s as a backlash to the Thatcher years.)
The historical view of witches is that they are not quite women.
You should be women,
And yet your beards forbid me to interpret
That you are so. (Macbeth, Act 1, Scene 3)
In art history, many witches are genuinely unattractive in a reproductive sense, either because they’re very old or because they make no effort to present themselves as alluring, and probably both.
By the 1970s, the nature of folkloric witches in the West had evolved to the point where witches were often depicted as feminine women, but the grotesque mismatch between unattractive essential witchiness is made more stark by their feminine style choices. Barling’s witches might also grace the pages of Dahl’s chapter book, The Witches, published about a decade later; their faces are asymmetrical and their noses and chins are masculine (transgressing gender expectations), but Barling’s witches wear lipstick and earrings, and have their hair styled into layered bobs.
Though these witches are standard in any illustration of witches in picture books, I recently happen to have read Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity by Julia Serano, in which the author points out the extent to which femininity (and here, feminine accoutrements) is seen as an untrustworthy artifice, which is problematic for anyone presenting as feminine, but is especially problematic for transgender women. (I’m sure someone has done a study on witches and femininity in picture books. I’m guessing the witches of picture books are more feminine than scary due to the age of the target readership.)
Extratextual musings aside, Blyton’s imaginary world has no layers; everyone is exactly how they appear.
“I’m going to be nice to her. Besides she’s got a friendly face, rather like my granny’s — I’m sure she isn’t a bad witch.”
Indeed, the witches of this story are not nasty at all:
“You’re the cleverest, kindest boy I’ve ever met!” said the witch. “Most people are afraid of witches because they think we will change them into blackbeetles or something–but that’s an old-fashioned idea. Nowadays we witches are gentle folk, making magic spells that will do no one any harm.”
So there you have it: an anti-bigotry moral from an author who was quite well-known for her xenophobia.
THAT PESKY GUTTER
It’s clear reading this book in 2015 that publishers of picture books sometimes had a few lessons to learn in this new era of double-page colour spreads. It’s hard to find a professionally produced book these days in which the illustrator has been schooled in avoiding placing characters’ faces right where the gutter goes.
STORY SPECS OF THIRTEEN O’CLOCK
Thirteen O’Clock appeared in a number of different Enid Blyton anthologies, and is the title story of this one, which demonstrates its popularity:
Illustrator Tom Barling was born in 1936, and illustrated a few of Enid Blyton’s stories over his career. He had a varied creative life as author of eleven crime novels about gangsters. Tom Barling is also well-known as a comic illustrator and an animator on the 1973 TV series of The Addams Family. If you look for books hoping to find more of his illustrations, though, you’ll find most of them seem to be out of print.
However, did you know that Bananas in Pyjamas is not just an irritating but super popular Australian children’s show but was originally a book written by Enid’s nephew, Carey? That was also illustrated by Tom Barling.
Barling also illustrated in an art noir style when required:
Comic book illustrators are required to draw from a variety of different, extreme perspectives. We see this skill a little bit in Thirteen O’Clock with a low-angle view of Sandy:
COMPARE AND CONTRAST WITH THIRTEEN O’CLOCK
There are many fantasy picture books (and chapter books) in which the child character goes off for an adventure, finds him or herself in a magical world, then goes back to the main parent (usually the mother) and is told that whatever happened is nonsense. But the reader is let in on the secret. Blyton’s authorial voice comes through clearly in the final paragraph:
“Eat up your lunch and don’t talk nonsense!”
But it wasn’t nonsense, was it? Sandy always puffs the time on all the dandelion clocks he sees now — perhaps one day it will be thirteen o’clock again!
The message here: Children, cling on to childhood, because the world of adults is devoid of magic.
This sort of plot might be contrasted with a book for children written by Richard Dawkins, presumably as an antidote to stories such as these.
The Magic of Reality is a fantastic book and I wish every child in the world would read it as they embark upon the study of high school science. But I think there is room for fantasy; clearly, some forms of fantasy are simply better done than others — fantasy which tells readers something about the real-world is the most valuable, and fantasy which urges children to believe in fairies even after the story is over is perhaps the laziest way of ending a story. However, Blyton was nothing if not prolific, and her stories were written in the oral tradition. It is therefore up to the adult co-reader to read this story with a nudge and a wink.
WRITE YOUR OWN
If fantasy stories for children are to do anything other than entertain — and pure entertainment is a satisfactory goal, no mistake — we must aim to pull readers out of a fantasy world with something to ponder. An io9 article outlines how reading Harry Potter has been shown to make readers better people.
…because Potter is continually in contact with stigmatized groups. The “muggles” get no respect in the wizarding world as they lack any magical ability. The “half-bloods,” or “mud-bloods” – wizards and witches descended from only one magical parent – don’t fare much better, while the Lord Voldemort character believes that power should only be held by “pure-blood” wizards. He’s Hitler in a cloak.
Utopian stories are those which create a myth of childhood by describing it as a Golden Age.
Depictions of utopia have a long history. Medieval comic genres depicted worlds of abundance and enjoyment, at least for the male characters.
FEATURES OF UTOPIAN CHILDREN’S STORIES
Maria Nikolajeva lists the main qualities of the Utopian category that most researchers agree upon in her book From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature:
the importance of a particular setting
autonomy of felicitous space from the rest of the world
a general sense of harmony
a special significance of home
absence of the repressive aspects of civilisation such as money, labor, law or government
absence of death and sexuality
and finally, as a result, a general sense of innocence
Utopian stories tend to be set in the country and the weather is usually sunny and temperate, unless there’s a storm to symbolise someone’s state of emotion (pathetic fallacy). The setting is often secluded/walled, and this wall provides both security and restriction to push back against. Inside the boundary is the world of the child; outside is the adult world. Characters/readers never worry about where food comes from (there is an inexhaustible supply); same for money. Death and sexuality are entirely absent. In The Wind In The Willows, every single character is male; in Little Women, the story is heavily female. In a pre-homosexual time (ie. where the concept doesn’t exist for children) sexuality therefore never crops up. In general, this is a time of innocence, where characters are oblivious to world politics, intellectual debate and so on.
In utopian fiction there is a transformation of a spatial concept, like a garden, into a temporal state, childhood.
I grew up in the 1980s and 90s, but this was before parallel importing of books in New Zealand, when books were still super-duper expensive. Few kids owned many and school libraries were quite small. I was lucky to grow up in a household full of books, though these comprised almost entirely of:
1. Little Golden Books
2. Read-It-Yourself books from Ladybird
3. My mother’s childhood books, and for some reason, a number which had belonged to her cousin. These were mostly Famous Five novels, along with a few from Blyton’s Malory Towers series and a few similarly bound ‘girls’ novels’ by Elsie J. Oxenham.
Here is a picture of Elsie J. Oxenham. It was taken in 1910.
I never was impressed by Oxenham’s books, which have dated in the most conspicuously terrible way you can imagine. I’ve since passed them on, and perhaps a collector found them at the second hand store. Enid Blyton’s books, however, are harder to get rid of, not because they haven’t dated. Enid Blyton’s books are terrible in ways that are well-known and well-documented by many other modern readers:
When it comes to Blyton’s notorious characterisations of travellers and gypsies [Cullingford says they are] ‘so absurdly innocent that they are beside the point’, a worrying observations both in light of the fact that, around the same time as Blyton was writing, over 200,000 gypsies were either being killed or had recently been killed in the Nazi death camps, and in light of the fact that Blyton is still promoted in school and very widely read by children.
– Understanding Children’s Literature, edited by Peter Hunt
The reason I’m having trouble giving my Enid Blyton collection away is because the stories are still compelling, and because I have such fond memories of Enid Blyton stories as a child. Again, I’m not alone in this:
If there’s any dilemma at all in the first world problem of owning too many books, it is this:
Do I want my daughter to read Enid Blyton, over and over again, like I did?
Did I love the stories of Enid Blyton mainly because I wasn’t exposed to much else?
Is there enough time during childhood for the average reader to get through all of the old classics as well as all the best new ones?
What does it mean to be a well-read child these days, when there is so much out there?
Wouldn’t I prefer my daughter read modern classics over and over, for example the Harry Potter series, which is neither racist nor sexist (at least, if it is, we can’t see it yet)?
Do I donate these Enid Blytons to the second-hand store, or do I keep them here, taking up space on a shelf?
If I give them away, will I feel the hole they have left? After all, those are my childhood memories right there!
If I keep them on the shelf and my daughter finds them, will I be slightly irritated that she’s not reading better stuff, which I have bought for her with good money?
If my daughter reads them, is this an unexpectedly wonderful lesson in 20th Century inequalities, as it was for me?
Is there a danger in sheltering young people from the sexism of earlier eras that they forget things can swing just as quickly back the other way?
What have you done with your childhood books? Do you encourage your children to read those over newer ones? Do you think children should read older books alongside modern publications for a rounded view of recent history?
Flight is amazingly common in children’s stories. Several other motifs should be considered symbolically similar:
floating — e.g. by holding onto helium balloons, levitating by magic or by supernatural means
going up onto a high place, such as a roof or a tree(house) — Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton’s tree house series are mega bestsellers in Australia
hovering — a subgenre in African American books
leaping and jumping — In Laura Ingalls Wilder’s fourth book for children, On The Banks Of Plum Creek, Laura and Mary jump with unrestrained joy off a stack of hay (until they’re told not to by their father). This contrasts with later chapters in the book where the outdoorsy Laura finds it difficult to concentrate in class, where she is required to sit still, restrained like a caged creature.
Christopher Vogler has this to say about how flight doesn’t always mean actual flying:
Fairy tales include a chase that involves a whimsical transformation of objects, known as the magic flight motif. In a typical story a little girl escapes from the clutches of a witch with the help of gifts from animals she’s been kind to. The girl throws down the gifts one by one in the witch’s path and they magically transform into barriers that delay the witch. A comb becomes a thick forest that slows the witch while she gobbles it up. A scarf becomes a wide river which she has to drink.
Joseph Campbell gives several illustrations of magical flights, and suggests the motif stands for a hero’s attempts to stall the avenging forces in any way possible, by throwing down “protective interpretations, principles, symbols, rationalizations, anything…(to)…delay and absorb” their power.
What the hero throws down in a chase may also represent a sacrifice, the leaving behind of something of value. The little girl of the fairy tales may find it hard to part with the lovely scarf or comb given by the animals. Heroes of movie adventures sometimes have to decide what’s really important, and toss money out the window to slow their pursuers and save their lives. Campbell cites the extreme example of Medea. Escaping with Jason from her father, she had Jason cut up her own brother and toss his pieces into the sea to delay the pursuit.
– The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Storytellers and Screenwriters
FLOATING = FLYING
When considering flight as a metaphor, include floating. As John Truby writes in his review of Avatar, ‘In the history of utopias, the single most important quality is floating or flying. Think of the floating tea party in Mary Poppins, Harry Potter playing Quidditch on his broomstick, or the floating house in Up.’
A good picture book example of floating can be seen in Outside Over There by Maurice Sendak, in which Ida floats backwards out the nursery window, then floats through the fantasy landscape as if she’s underwater. Gravity works differently in this imaginary world of hers, in which her little sister was kidnapped by goblins.
Truby points out that if a fantasy world is to be successful on a grand scale, it must have the qualities of a utopia.
Food plays an important role in children’s literature, and is one difference between mainstream literature and literature for children. Food means all sorts of things throughout literature — sometimes it symbolizes good, other times evil.
Why All The Food in Children’s Literature?
The feasting fantasy in children’s literature is a particularly good vehicle for carrying culture’s socializing messages: it acts to seduce readers; through mimesis it “naturalizes” the lesson being taught; and, through the visceral pleasures (sometimes even jouissance) it produces, it “sweetens” the discourse and encourages unreflexive acceptance of the moral thus delivered. Hence, while ostensibly pandering to hedonism, a feasting fantasy frequently acts didactically.
— Voracious Children: Who eats who in children’s literature? by Carolyn Daniel
Here are a few things to bear in mind when you come across food in literature:
All food in literature is symbolic, since made up people don’t actually need to eat anything.
In Western philosophical thought (e.g. Freud), everything inside/edible is aligned with the self and is good. Everything outside/inedible is aligned with the other and is bad.
Inside/self = mind/reason, outside/inedible = body/passion. This also leads to a whole nother discussion about phalluses that I’d rather erase from the history of Western thought, thanks. (It pits the masculine against the feminine in a way that supports an unhelpful gender binary. Also, femininity = thinness = mind over matter.)
The ultimate ‘bad eater’ is the cannibal = the antithesis of humanity.
Food is obviously culturally specific. Bear in mind that in the West, our list of acceptable proteins is quite narrow. A lot of this comes from the food rules as described in Leviticus. (Sheep, pigs, cattle, chickens = OK. Pretty much everything else = NOT OK.) In Jewish culture, no pigs either. Hindus, no beef.
Some animals are accorded a sort of interim status similar to humans. In kidlit, dogs.
Food fantasies were especially prevalent in England during the Victorian era (due to underfeeding of children) and during the world wars (due to rationing).
Relatively expensive ice cream and chocolate products tend to be marketed at adult women whereas cheap sugary products are marketed at children, but in literature, children get to eat the expensive ones.
Some classic and well-known children’s books are famous for their celebration and proliferation of food and mealtimes:
The Wind In The Willows
Many stories of Enid Blyton, such as the Famous Five Adventures and the Faraway Tree trilogy
“Soon they were all sitting on the rocky ledge, which was still warm, watching the sun go down into the lake. It was the most beautiful evening, with the lake as blue as a cornflower and the sky flecked with rosy clouds. They held their hard-boiled eggs in one hand and a piece of bread and butter in the other, munching happily. There was a dish of salt for everyone to dip their eggs into.
The symbolic meaning of food which we see in Arcadia children’s books is present in travel instructions too. It has been noted that in no other children’s books do the characters eat as much and with such relish as in Enid Blyton’s adventure novels. In adult formula fiction, this corresponds to excessive drinking and sexual exploits. The reader partakes in behavior which is not wholly accepted in our society, an initiation into the “other” and the forbidden.
–Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
If you’ve ever read something about how to improve your memory for lists of objects, you may be familiar with the advice to play with size. For instance, if you’re heading to the shops and you need to buy apples, imagine a massive apple on top of the hill behind your house.
I believe picture books featuring oversized items are utilising the same quirk of the brain: massive items are memorable.
When it comes to massive food, the story conveys abundance. Examples:
Nikolajeva explains that we need to understand food in mythology before we can understand food in children’s literature:
According to most mythologists, meals in myths and folktales are circumlocutions of sexual intercourse, but we can reconstruct this meaning only partly from the existing texts. When folktales were incorporated into children’s literature, their motifs changed further, to suit pedagogical purposes, so that the original meaning has become still more obscure. It is therefore essential to understand what food represents in myth and folktale, before we can interpret its meaning in children’s fiction.
– Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature
We are told:
The most important role of food in myths to accentuate the contrast between nature and culture. The origin of food is in nature, but it is used within culture, and it is the result of the transition from nature to culture. Thus food neutralizes this basic contrast.
Cultures are made up of many different kinds of oppositions (own/alien, male/female, home/away, sacred/profane and so on). The opposition between ‘own and alien’ tends to be especially connected to food in ancient cultures. Whatever we eat is natural and genuine; whatever others eat is alien, unnatural and unclean. This can be seen in a the big three religions. In Judaism and Islam followers are not allowed to eat certain foods. Christians have rules about Lent.
So what’s the first step when cultures start to become civilized?
CANNIBALISM IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Angela Carter, in one of her deft and offhand sullies, famously remarked that a fairy tale is a story in which one king goes to visit another king to borrow a cup of sugar.
— Marina Warner
This hunger in fairy tales reveals its keen edge even more clearly against the historical background. Actual orphans and fairy tale foundlings coexisted in the eighteenth-century culture, and food was stodgy and often scanty.
— Marina Warner
A Brief History of Cannibalism, Real and Literary
The prohibition against eating human flesh is one of the first steps in human civilization. Cannibalism was universally accepted in the archaic world, but later started to be viewed as alien. Cannibalism is often connected with the Fall, that is the loss of immortality. In a myth, the so-called cultural hero terminates cannibalism by defeating the cannibal enemy.
In one common myth a supreme deity punishes his children/spouse by cutting them into bits and throwing them down from heaven to earth or hiding them underground. Nutritious plants grow from the mutilated bodies.
An important mythical figure is the Progenitrix, the incarnation of Mother Earth, the origin of everything. In most myths, she teaches humans to sow and to bake bread.
— Maria Nikolajeva
The children’s literature equivalent of the Progenitrix are parents or other adults — usually the mother.
Hence, we must interpret all scenes in children’s fiction where the mother provides food not only and not in the first place as realistic details (as a traditional female role), but as a remnant of the human notion of the Progenitrix, the source of food and thus of procreation.
Marina Warner, in No Go The Bogeyman, offers further examples of cannibalism in storytelling, beginning with some very old tales:
The Juniper Tree from the Grimm collections, which is an 1800s take on an ancient tale pattern — Tereus in Philomena and Procne and Ovid’s tale of Philomel. Hera, Demeter, Hades, Hestia, Poseidon (of the Olympians); Jupiter, Zeus, Saturn and Kronos (of the Romans).
Tamara Queen of the Goths in Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, which played from 1592. The 1500s were a golden era for cannibal stories, especially on the stage.
Sleeping Beauty and Snow Whiteare very similar tales at their core and in both of those you’ll find a cannibalistic grandmother (witch) figure — both are frustrated in their desire to eat offspring, but they both wanted to. You’ll have to go back to the Perrault versions to get the juicy cannibalistic bits — the stories tend to leave out part two of Sleeping Beauty for a young, contemporary audience.
The BFG by Roald Dahl, in which Sophie (and therefore the child reader) is terrified of being eaten by giants. This is straight out of fairytale.
Silence of the Lambs is not a children’s film but includes this cannibalistic element, also linking cannibalism to sex. For Hannibal Lecter, eating people is a sexual experience.
Jack and the Beanstalk, in which the giant in the castle in the sky wants to eat Englishmen, grinding their bones to make bread. Many cannibals have been ostracised from civilised society and live in the forest, but there’s another type of ‘ogre’ who lives in a castle. Jack and the Beanstalk is a good example of that kind.
Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl, which is for adults but studied in high schools around the English speaking world. (Is it just a coincidence that lambs keep coming up? Is it because lambs are delicious?) Dahl took a macabre delight in cannibalism and other deviance. (Most of it came out in his short stories for adults, but he gave children a taste.)
A contemporary take on the cannibal fairy tale — and a hugely successful one at that — is the picture book Guess Who’s Coming For Dinner? If you’re a picture book author, how do you get away with cannibalism in today’s market? The pig and the goose are an excellent case study: In a Rosie’s Walk style of hero obliviousness, they have no idea that they’ve caused the downfall of the wolf (the wicked witch stand-in), and that he’s about to be consumed by his wolf cronies. In other words, you can cause cannibalism — just make it comical and make it accidental.
While we still see actual cannibals in contemporary stories, we’ve now got another kind of monster who functions in the same way: the pedophile or child abuser. Whatever we say about him, we can also say of the ancient cannibal.
So why all the cannibalism? What are we to make of them, really? What are they saying at a deeper level?
Symbolism and Motifs of Cannibalism
Here’s Nikolajeva’s take:
The meaning of cannibalism is that by eating up your enemy you inherit his powers. There exists a habit of eating up the eldest man in the tribe to inherit his wisdom. Later this changes into ritual meals. To eat a symbolical figure signifies receiving magical power. To eat and be eaten are two interchangeable notions, which is seen in the Christian tradition’s most important sacrament, the Holy Communion. Jesus prescribed that His “body” be eaten, symbolizing a union of those who eat and Him who is being eaten, which together signifies a victory over death and a promise of resurrection.
Food and Christianity
Unlike most of the world’s religions, Christians are able to eat anything. Christians are omnivorous. This is reflected in children’s literature.
The imagery of eating pervades the very language of the culture, its beliefs and its rites
It provokes anxiety about impurity — an anxiety that used to be partly contained for Catholics, by minor rules of abstinence, such as no meat on Fridays and fasting before communion, but is no longer.
The taboo on cannibalism — on eating your own kind–offers the apparently unbreakable standard of propriety and hence ethics. Yet it is always being broken though performance and metaphor, thus plunging the system of discrimination between the good and bad eaters into continual disarray.
Eating and being eaten inspires one of the most common games adults play with babies. (Animal noises, gobbling — this is used in Gremlins to comic effect when the Gremlins say ‘yum yum!’)
It’s instinctive to growl and grit your teeth and curl your fingers, as instinctive as kissing or crying.
Faire barbo is a French expression which refers to the ancient game of clenching your teeth and grunting and making as if to claw at a little baby in fun.
Marina Warner’s take on literary cannibalism is related but a little different. Whereas Nikolajeva highlights the link between ‘eating and being eaten’, Warner highlights the link between eating one’s children and giving birth to them as another kind of ‘cycle of life’. In The Juniper Tree, the ‘birthing’ and ‘eating’ symbolism is braided all the way throughout the story. The boy gets to live on through the father. The false mother is expelled and the true father is validated. The result is a patriarchal triumph of a sort not seen in the earlier Kronos version — the female is erased entirely — the father is both birther and nurturer in the end. The family itself is reborn. Biology is negated. The dead mother has no body (and nor does the evil step-mother). The father’s link to his children is solid — and ‘link to one’s own children’ is the one thing men have never been able to take away from women, even in the most repressive and patriarchal of cultures. Instead we see it done in stories.
In short, a tale such as The Juniper Tree is all about a deep-seated question regarding family relationships:
Who do children belong to? To mothers or to fathers? How can they belong to both?
Who has control of the child’s identity?
The culture of primogeniture comes in here, too. This is the custom of leaving all the family wealth to the eldest child. This happened in my own extended family just one generation ago, so it’s hardly dead. It tends to happen in farming families, in which the farm would otherwise be dismantled if the assets were divided among multiple children. The idea behind primogeniture: The boy who inherits the farm provides for his extended family. (In practice this may not happen.)
Aristocracy has never more than one child. The rest are begotten to be devoured.
The link between primogeniture and cannibalism is a fascinating one — metaphorical cannibalism.
Now for eroticism. There’s a fine line between love and hate. For more on that listen to the Real Crime Profile podcast with Laura Richards, a British criminal profiler and feminist activist who does a lot of work around coercive control. For women (more rarely a man), the people most likely to kill us are men who say they love us.
In that vein, Nikolajeva posits that cannibalism in storytelling can function as a sign of extreme love:
when a man (more rarely a woman) eats up his beloved, in order to own her completely. Here is once again a parallel between food and intercourse, oral and sexual satisfaction. In some myths, parents devour their children out of great love.
Nikolajeva isn’t using the term because it’s a recent concept, but she is describing ‘coercive control’.
When Women Eat Children
Think of the folktales in which a witch eats the children, or tries to. Most of the time, the children get away. Marina Warner points out that in Greek myth, there are no examples of women eating their children. Not on purpose. Nor are they duped into it. This seems a bit of an anomaly, because Greek women of myth engage in plenty of infanticide. Ancient Greeks obviously thought of mothers eating children quite separately from other methods of murder. Consider the act of eating one’s child as a kind of inverted birthing. Ownership via incorporation. This idea lingers in modern stories about giants and cannibal fathers.
From the Grimm collection, a good example of child-eating women is Hansel and Gretel. Closely related is Baba Yaga. In these tales, cannibalism symbolises death and resurrection — and a near death experience is a vital part of story structure. It comes at the end of the battle stage, right before the self-revelation.When someone almost eats you, that makes for a pretty good battle. Or maybe someone almost eats your children. There’s only one thing worse than someone else eating your children — and that’s being tricked into eating your own children, a la the Juniper Tree tales. Again, though, these women never actually get to eat the children. She is always easily duped. The trickster children get away.
Fairytales are about all the various initiation rites, and these rites include sexual intercourse.
The sacred food [of myth] is developed into a magical agent in folktales: bread, milk, honey, apple, beans etc. As compared to myths, folktales have lost their secret sacred meaning. Folktales collected and retold for children have often acquired the opposite meaning. It is therefore necessary to go back to myth to clarity the function of food in fairy tales, often connected with prohibition against incest. Food as a part of a trial appears in many fairy tales; the hero takes food from home when departing on his quest. Many folktales reflect the dream of Cornucopia, described as a magical mill, tablecloth or bag. Food can also be a means of enchantment, when the hero is transformed by eating or drinking something.
— Maria Nikolajeva
I believe Nikolajeva is talking about food as cycle of life, which is what Marina Warner was talking about vis a vis The Juniper Tree pattern of tale. Warner also says that in these early myths, cannibalism functions as a motif to dramatise the struggle for survival within the family.
Marina Warner sees cannibalism — overall — as a metaphor for the internal states and private knowledge.
Mythic cannibals who started off as sexually indifferent grew more sexual over time. A good example of that is Polyphemus (the Greek guy with the eye in the middle of his forehead).
The Hierarchy of Cannibals
In fairytale there’s a distinction between eating someone raw or ‘as carrion’. Even better than that, cooking them is the most genteel kind of cannibalism. Sushi is one step down, followed by eating them as carrion, in which you are the worst kind of beast. (But if you are tricked into eating your own children, you’re absolved, and in fact you’ll get them back and live happily ever after.)
For the word lovers among you:
Anthropophage — someone who eats humans
Omophage — someone who only eats their own kind. (Well, I guess that’s okay then…)
Infantiphage — someone who eats babies
Basically, there’s no sex in traditional children’s literature, so we have lots of food instead.
In The Rhetoric of Character In Children’s Literature, Maria Nikolajeva describes this function of food in literature by summarising Forster (1985), though numerous others have said similar:
In fiction [food] mainly has a social function; food “draws characters together, but they seldom require it physiologically, seldom enjoy it, and never digest it unless specially asked to do so”. … For all that Forster denies the characters of mainstream fiction the joys of food, they are all the more explicit in children’s fiction. … Food in children’s fiction is the equivalent of sex in the mainstream. Still more important is that for child protagonists, food is the essential link between themselves and the surrounding adults who have the power to provide food or to deny it. Food symbolizes love and care or lack thereof. A number of well-known children’s texts, from Hansel and Gretel to Where The Wild Things Are, rotate around this theme. Last but not least, food in children’s fiction is, much more often than in the mainstream, used for characterization. James Bond may be characterized through his passion for “shaken, not stirred,” but we are more likely to remember Winnie-the-Pooh through his passion for “hunny”.
Marina Warner has this to say, after describing early childhood games in which the parent pretends to eat the child, or tuck them into bed as if putting them into an oven:
The same impulse can arise in adult love-making, but orality there is not usually accompanied by monster faces or jaw-snapping and munching sounds. In sex, the eating fantasy does not often twist and turn through comic exaggerations and parodic beastliness. As Adam Phillips has commented, ‘If…kissing could be described as aim-inhibited eating, we should also consider the more nonsensical option that eating can also be, as Freud will imply, aim-inhibited kissing.’
The interplay of these two ways of connection sometimes tilts, in the changing representations of poetry, play, images and songs, towards eating, sometimes towards kissing; in today’s climate, the public emphasis falls on food. Food may stand in for sex, the oral gratifications perhaps interchangeable at a psychic level, but in terms of shared, overt expression, the promised satisfactions of food eclipse mutual exchanges of kisses and caresses. And these satisfactions include power over the hungry, control of the consumer.
— No Go the Bogeyman
Since sex and death (violence) are intertwined in mainstream stories, it is food and death which are intertwined in stories for children.
In traditional (mythic) stories, food has its own particular symbolic function:
Food is an indispensable part of the initiation rite, since it is closely connected to death and resurrection. Death in a rite of passage is often represented by the novice being eaten up by a monster (Jonah and the Whale is an example), which during the rite itself is staged by the novice entering a cave or a hut (for instance the famous Russian hut on chicken legs, inhabited by Baby Yaga). Resurrection is represented by the novice being invited to participate in a meal in the Otherworld, the realm of death. By accepting food from the Otherworld, the hero gains passage into it (the Holy Communion is a remnant of this archaic rite, as is the Jewish Sabbath meal). The Russian folktale hero Ivan replies to Baba Yaga’s threats of eating him up:”What is the good of eating a tired traveller? Let me first have some food and drink and a bath.” He pronounces himself ready to accept witch food and go through a symbolic purification.
– From Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
I’m reminded of Spirited Away, in which Chihiro must eat a berry in order not to disappear. When her parents eat food from this Otherworld, they turn into pigs, becoming part of this Otherworld.
FOOD AS A LINK BACK TO THE HOME
When the character of a children’s book departs from home (a necessary part of initiation), food can serve as a link back home. Since food emphasizes affinity, “own” food, food from home is especially important. It is also important that the mother packs the food and, as in folktale, supplies it with her blessing. This security of home, represented by food, is to be found in all types of children’s fiction, including adventure books, where home is treated more like a prison.
– from Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
FOOD AS A TRIAL
Since food from home gives security it can also function as a trial. When protagonists meet other characters, they are often invited to a meal or are encouraged to share their food with strangers, who become friends and helpers. In both cases, shared food is a sign of union. Food becomes a token of belonging together in a quest or struggle, or belonging to a particular group, good or evil. It can also be a passkey into the Otherworld, as in Alice In Wonderland. Finally, it can enchant, corrupt and even destroy.
– from Mythic to Linear: Time In Children’s Literature by Maria Nikolajeva
…this was enchanted Turkish Delight and…anyone who had once tasted it would want more and more of it, and would even, if they were allowed, go on eating it till they killed themselves.
–The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe
If that’s not a symbol for the evils of drug addiction, what is? In fact, C.S. Lewis was influenced by The Arabian Nights, in which sherbet and Turkish delight are evil confections. C.S. Lewis himself disliked these foods as a child, which together form his reason for using Turkish delight when painting young Edmond as the Judas of the story.
On the other hand, Lucy has shared food with Mr Tumnus:
During her first stay in Narnia, Lucy is invited to tea with Mr. Tumnus, the faun. He promises her “toast–and sardines–and cake”. Indeed, on the table there is “a nice brown egg, lightly boiled, for each of them” [Nikolajeva explains that during the war, eggs were rationed.] and then buttered toast, and then toast with honey, and then a sugar-topped cake.”
Did C.S. Lewis realise that what he was doing was the kidlit equivalent of sex? Nikolajeva thinks he probably did know, but propriety prevented him from admitting it in his essay “On three ways of writing for children“.
A shared meal–which we all know in its refined form as the Holy Communion–is the foremost symbol for affinity. Lewis was well-acquainted with mythology. The faun is the first person Lucy meets in Narnia. Our previous experience of stories prompts us that food comes from the good. Thus we immediately assume that the faun is a good creature. As it is, it is not totally true, since the faun is running the White Witch’s errand and tries to deceive Lucy. At the same time, the shared meal prevents the faun from turning in Lucy to his ruler. When you have broken bread with someone, you are committed. A shared meal is a covenant.
Later, the meal with the Beavers continues the affinity, showing the Beavers are friends.
“I must bring you where we can have ea real talk and also dinner”…everyone…was very glad to hear the word ‘dinner’.
In The Child That Books Built, Francis Spufford writes of the religiosity of C.S. Lewis, which obviously had an influence on his work:
Lewis took a completely orthodox but rather marginal point of Christian doctrine, and made it central to his belief. It was axiomatic that no sinful act could bring the sinner any substantial reward. You might be tempted by the idea that the sin would bring you a full, overflowing pleasure, but when you actually succumbed, you’d find out that all you got was flat, empty sensation. The apples of Sodom taste of ashes. This happened because sins were parodies, or perversions, of the legitimate pleasures God had ordained for human beings. In that case, reasoned Lewis, if you resisted sins in this life, every pleasure they held out delusively to you now, would be supplied in reality and in overwhelming abundance in the greater life to come. Every pleasure, though we might no longer recognise them as sexual once they have shed their mortal connections with biology.
BAKHTIN’S MATERIAL BODILY PRINCIPLE
In the book Language and Ideology In Children’s Literature, John Stephens writes of so-called interrogative texts — texts which question authority, and introduces the concept of the material bodily principle:
The interrogative texts of children’s literature allow a significant space for what Bakhtin termed ‘the material bodily principle’ — the human body and its concerns with food and drink (commonly in hyperbolic forms of gluttony and deprivation), sexuality (usually displaced into questions of undress) and excretion (usually displaced into opportunities for getting dirty).
MEALS AS A MEANS OF CIVILIZATION
Meals and feasts, for example, are an important part of human culture, and have a unique and significant role in children’s literature. Official meals, that is, meals conducted at times and places determined by adult authority, reinforce the existing patterns of things and social hierarchies, and assert certain values as stable, normal and moral. An early reference in Five Children and It to the children being ‘caught and cleaned for tea’ discloses, despite its jokiness, the prevailing attitude that meals are part of the process whereby children are civilized and socialized in order to take their place in adult society. Katz has observed that the practice of using meals as a measure of a child’s adjustment to the social order is especially pronounced in English children’s literature. The carnivalesque children’s feast — whether ‘midnight feast’ or birthday party or food-fight — celebrates a temporary liberation from official control over the time, place and manner in which food is consumed. In Five Children and It, where food is of central concern to the main characters without being carnivalized, the baby is allowed to be revolting at mealtimes but a somewhat arch distance is maintained when the older children, compelled to eat invisible food, regress to primitive methods.
THE CONNECTION BETWEEN ANIMALS AND FOOD IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
The focus on animals and their nature may explain a[nother] common feature of children’s texts, especially those intended for younger readers. Their characters are often centrally concerned with questions about food. In well-known fairy tales, Little Red Riding Hood brings food to her grandmother but is threatened with becoming the meal herself, and Hansel and Gretel become possible meals after they nibble parts of the witch’s house. Meanwhile, Peter Rabbit has his dangerous adventure because he can’t resist Mr. McGregor’s vegetables even though his father was made into a pie by Mrs. McGregor. And In Where The Wild Things Are, Max is sent to his room because he threatens to devour his mother, discovers that the Wild Things want to eat him up because they love him, and is drawn back home by the smell of good things to eat.
Eating is less central in longer works of fiction, but it’s still an important subject. For instance, Charlotte’s Web focuses attention on descriptions of Wilbur’s slop. Charlotte’s methods of killing her food, and Templeton the rat’s pleasure in the feast available at the fair.
In these and many other texts, the fact that human beings eat creatures that once lived but were too weak to protect themselves suggests some ambiguity about the degree to which one is a human eater, like one’s parents, or an animal-like food, like the “little lambs” and “little pigs” adults so often tell children they are. The focus on eating raises the question of children’s’ animality in an especially intense way.
– The Pleasures of Children’s Literature by Reimer and Nodelman
The dream about the Land of Plenty–Cocayne or Schlarafflenland–has haunted humanity for many centuries. One of the earliest literary descriptions of this paradise is to be found in the German Hans Sachs’s verse from mid-16th century. 19th-century German picture books especially depicted travels into elaborate lands of sweets and cakes, with the inevitable didactic conseqeunce of stomach ache.
Twentieth century children’s writers are much more liberal in their Schlaraffenland variations. The most famous contemporary tale of Schlaraffenland is Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The title itself may be seen as an allusion to early children’s books about gluttony. As in many such books, the story starts with a description of poverty and hunger. […] The big family does not starve, but “every one of them…went about from morning till night with a horrible empty feeling in their tummies.” […] The description of the Schlaraffenland matches the traditional stories: rivers and waterfalls of hot chooclate, trees and flowers of “soft, minty sugar”, a pink boat made of “an enormous boiled sweet” […] It is almost inevitable to assume that Roald Dahl read a good deal of Schlaraffenland tales as a child.
– Maria Nikolajeva, From Mythic to Linear: Time in children’s literature
See also: The Wind On The Moon for another well-known story of gluttony.
HUNGER IN CHILDREN’S STORIES
Nikolajeva explains that children have a subconscious fear of hunger, which can be used to good effect in stories.
Death as such is an abstract notion for most young readers. Hunger on the other hand is something everyone has experience, at least on a very modest scale. To be hungry, not to get food, is a tangible threat. However, it can also be translated into more symbolic notions. Hunger [can be] hunger for love and warmth.
Children of earlier eras were rarely fully satiated. As an example, this is typical food for children in the 1700s, from the menu of a London foundling hospital (orphanage):
gruell for breakfast
potatoes for lunch
milk and bread for supper on Monday
milk porridge, boiled mutton and bread on Tuesday
broth-rice milk, bread and cheese on Wednesday
gruel, boiled pork and bread on Thursday (And this was in pork season).
milk porridge, dumplins, milk and bread on Friday
Gruell, hasty puddings and bread and cheese on Saturday
Broth, Road pork and bread on Sunday (the climax)
This menu is basic, but far better than many children got.
THE IDEOLOGY OF FAMILY MEALTIMES TOGETHER
The overriding image of a happy family round the table has remained static, fixed in the culture, as something that should happen, something that is essential to the wellbeing of the family and the nation. This is prevalent in all kinds of different media. Many Happy Returns of the Day, for example, an iconic Victorian painting (1856) by William Powell Frith, demonstrates the importance of ritual and celebration in family life, gathered together and marking occasions of private meaning. Such imagery plays a crucial part in naturalising the family meal in the same way as certain types of meals or recipes are handed down the generations and thus create tradition, nostalgia and a sense of belonging.
This particular ideology may influence how things work in your own family. This post from advice columnist Captain Awkward highlights the ways in which a family can construct a narrative about What Tight Families Do, and also the problems this can lead to when adult children develop different diets.
Nothing says ‘nonchalant’ like wolfing down food. There’s no better way to make a baddie look truly psychopathic than to put him in a middle of a gruesome scene then have him pick up an apple and eat it. All the normal characters — and perhaps the audience — have churning stomachs. Yet the psychopath in question doesn’t bat an eyelid.
In this case, the juxtaposition is between the horror and the banality of satisfying a literal hunger, at the bottom of the hierarchy of needs. This most literal belly-filling hunger can also serve as a metaphor for other types of hunger: Perhaps the villain has a hunger for killing sprees or blood.
The insertion of food can also be used in different ways in fiction.
FOR COMEDIC EFFECT
‘And I like your shoes.’
He tilted his foot to examine the craftsmanship. ‘Yes. Ducker’s in The Turl. They make a wooden thingy of your foot and keep it on a shelf for ever. Thousands of them down in a basement room, and most of the people are long dead.’
the writers for whom dishes are essentially interchangeable, mere stops on the ribbon of narrative, signs of life and social transactions rather than specific pleasures
the writers who dish up very particular food to their characters to show who they are. Proust is this kind of writer, and Henry James is, too.
the writers who are so greedy that they go on at length about the things their characters are eating, or are about to eat—serving it in front of us and then snatching it from our mouths
and then there are writers, ever more numerous, who present on the page not just the result but the whole process—not just what people eat but how they make it, exactly how much garlic is chopped, and how, and when it is placed in the pan
Which of these types of food writing is most common in children’s literature? Has this changed over time? Can you think of children’s authors who fit each of the four categories?
Food is everywhere in the Bible. From the Forbidden Fruit to the Last Supper and from the Manna in the Desert to the Feeding of the Five Thousand the Good Book is obsessed with diet. It is set in a land of milk and honey but one also faced with famine; a place of feast and fast, of drunkenness and self-denial, and of marvellous showers of bread from the skies and the transformation of water into wine. Sacrificial banquets, with bread, oil, alcohol and meat are offered to the populace, with slices reserved for the priesthood and the choicest cuts saved for the deity. Women do the cooking. Many are honoured with culinary names; that of Rebecca, mother of Joseph, means ‘cow’ and the title of Rachel, matriarch of the Twelve Tribes, can be translated as ‘ewe’.