Sunday, 12 September 2010
Realism and Fairytales
Though these adventures were, in one sense, clear fantasy, they were presented with a veneer of realism which could deceive our inexperience. I loved to read of dragons and flying horses, but never expected to meet one. The dilapidated old barn, however, a mile up in the fields near the edge of the woods, with the shotgun cartridges scattered around the doorway – surely that was something which we ought to investigate? So we did, and got shouted at and chased by the farmer for walking over his crops.
Well, we should have known better. Enid Blyton is hardly a realistic writer. Maybe not. But what about some more recent ‘realistic’ books for children – say, Jacqueline Wilson’s nitty-gritty tussles with all sorts of issues? Her heroines live in children’s homes, or have totally unreliable parents, or big stepbrothers who bully them, or are young carers themselves, or try shoplifting and smoking to impress the glamorous ‘bad’ best friend… Isn’t this realism?
Um, not quite. I have the utmost admiration for Jacqueline Wilson’s books, which my own daughters loved – but actually, they are fairytales. Wilson’s stories chime so with young girls, because everyone loves a good dose of misery followed by a happy ending. (Look at Frances Hodgson Burnett’s ‘A Little Princess.’) Aged about ten, my younger daughter and her friends were writing stories at school that were essentially Jacqueline Wilson fan-lit: first-person accounts of an imaginary home life in which Dad got drunk, blacked their eyes and wept, while feckless Mum went out with the empties and came back in with another tattoo. Of course there are such homes, far too many of them. But the reason I claim Wilson’s books are really fairytales, is because her young heroines who go through so much, always end up wiser, happier, and in a better place than they started from. They are fairytale endings. I say this with no shadow of disparagement – but realistic, they’re not.
Alison Lurie, in her brilliant set of essays on children’s literature ‘Don’t Tell the Grownups’ (Bloomsbury 1990), recounts how at the age of five she was given ‘The Here and Now Story Book’ by a writer named Lucy Sprague Mitchell – whose credo was that fairytales delayed ‘a child’s rationalising of the world’ and left him ‘longer than is desirable without the beginnings of scientific standards’. Lurie writes:
Inside, I could read about The Grocery Man (“This is John’s Mother. Good morning, Mr Grocery Man”) … The children and parents in these stories were exactly like the ones I knew, only more boring. They never did anything really wrong, and nothing dangerous or surprising ever happened to them – no more than it did to Dick and Jane, whom I and my friends were soon to meet in first grade.
Learning to read in the early sixties, I also encountered such children: the ‘Janet and John’ readers, and the safe, sunny, pedestrian world of the Ladybird books – where all families were made up of a Mummy who stayed at home and baked, a Daddy who went to work carrying a briefcase, a little boy in shorts, a little girl in a frilly dress, and a spaniel. Plots would revolve around picnics, kite-flying, the collection of tadpoles in jam-jars, and the making and icing of fairycakes.
Lurie continues with devastating truth:
After we grew up, of course, we found out how unrealistic these stories had been. The simple, pleasant adult society they had prepared us for did not exist. As we suspected, the fairy tales had been right all along – the world was full of hostile, stupid giants and perilous castles and people who abandoned their children in the nearest forest.
To succeed in this world you needed some special skill or patronage, plus remarkable luck, and it didn’t hurt to be very good-looking. The other qualities that counted were wit, boldness, stubborn persistence, and an eye for the main chance. Kindness to those in trouble was also advisable – you never knew who might be useful to you later on.
And this still seems to me the best argument against those who still think that fairytales are unreal; or at least more unreal than books set in the everyday here and now. How much do we need to be taught, in Lucy Sprague Mitchell’s phrase, to ‘rationalise the world’? Do we really need protection from the obviously fantastic? My brother and I, as children, could imagine ourselves into an Enid Blyton-style adventure – and, so doing, explored potentially dangerous deserted barns and houses – because her books contained no obvious impossibilities. But fiction is fiction is fiction.
Stories are real and not-real at the same time. What we really need in life, it seems to me, is encouragement. Plenty of fiction will take you from A – Z on the direct route, but you may possibly learn more on the scenic way. We need to allow ourselves and our children to discover the power of metaphor to transform experience. I would put my money on the basic stuff of fairytales being far more likely to happen to the average child than the chance of capturing an enemy spy or discovering a nest of coiners. Your parents may abandon you, or die, or abuse you; you may be ignored and disregarded; later in life your lover may forget you; you may have to work hard for little or no reward.