Archive for the 'children’s literature' Category

Angus Macvicar: The Lost Planet

February 24, 2023

      Courtesy of the wonderful Internet Archive and a library in India I have just gone back 60 years in a time machine…

I’ve written before about hoovering up the contents of the children’s section of the Stamford Public Library before, during my younger days. One of the books (a series, actually) that’s always lurked in my memory is The Lost Planet, by Angus Macvicar. Given that it will be getting on for sixty years since I read them, tracking down anything was going to be a challenge, I felt, but for books that first introduced me to, and hooked me on science fiction, it was going to be worth it, and it turned out rather easier than I expected.

The novels are categorised as ‘juvenile science fiction’. The one I tracked down and re-read is a fast-paced yarn with a boy hero, and the science is so far-fetched as to be risible. A planet that seems to wander around the solar system much as a comet does, coming almost as close to Earth as the moon actually is, a small group of scientists and engineers building an atomic-powered spacecraft in (almost) a back garden in remote Scotland in order to go there…international rivalry with a thinly disguised Russian project – Americans nowhere to be seen! — spies and secret agents. The whole thing smacks of the Eagle comic and Dan Dare, and of course it is of the same era.

Their ship is irreparably damaged in a crash-landing on the planet. It’s Earth-like but smaller, and they set off exploring much as one might set out on a country hike. The weirdest thing is the widespread presence of a deep-rooted and scented white flower, which appears to exert a physical and mental calming influence on the members of the party, and when their Russian rivals bump into them (just like that!) the latter are friendly enough to offer to take them back home on their spaceship.

As I said, it’s a kid’s book (I don’t mean that in any derogatory sense at all) so lots of things that are potentially very interesting are only briefly touched on or hinted at, before the story moves on, but – as my own case shows – seeds are sown.

Other books in the series are not easily available, but the planet has inhabitants who are of a pacifist inclination, having wrecked their own planet through ‘atomic experimentation’, and one of them is brought to Earth with their message. It all seems uncannily prescient, in an incredibly naive way, and I have also found myself wondering if the books not only sowed my love of SF but also nudged me in the direction of pacifism, which I realise I began to entertain seriously in my early teenage years. Stap me, as some folk may remember me saying…

Hans Peter Richter: Friedrich

February 16, 2023

     I can read books in French; my German isn’t of a high enough standard to cope with books. But someone in our German group recently lent me a book – in German — and I took it to read because I had used it so many times during my teaching career – in English translation, of course – with my Y8 classes as an introduction to what I suppose would nowadays be called Holocaust education. It was an interesting experiment, I’ll say ‘working my way through it’ rather than reading it in German: I was made even more aware of my deficient German grammar and restricted vocabulary.

Friedrich is a clever and carefully written book, from the perspective of two young boys of an age, whose families live in the same apartment house in an unidentified German town. One is Jewish, the other is not; when they are at primary school, the Nazis come to power. It’s written as a series of loosely connected chapters, identified by a year in the English version. You can see where it’s going: the impact of the Nazi regime on both boys’ lives, in very different ways. They are forced apart, and we see many of the adults around them also changed by the times and the regime, and the drift towards war.

It’s a short novel, simply written; events speak for themselves. For my students, apart from the growing horror at what happened as time passed, what was even more shocking was the historical timeline given as an appendix at the end of the book, the list of many of the laws and regulations that gradually destroyed the lives of the Jews in Germany. I can still recall the gasps as they read of a law passed which forbade blind Jews to carry white sticks and wear white armbands to identify themselves in the street and among traffic… it was such ‘ordinary’ abominations that were most shocking.

I imagine the book is not much used, if at all, nowadays, superseded by The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas, which is, to me, a much less effective and far more contrived tale, stretching credibility just a bit too far. However, if it is also succeeding in ensuring that the horrors of those years are never forgotten, then it is also performing a useful task.

Laurie Frost: The Elements of His Dark Materials

January 22, 2023

      This will be the last Pullman-focused post for a while, I think. But if you are as hooked on His Dark Materials as I am, in the sense that you both enjoy the story, and admire the inventiveness of the alternative universes and the writer’s philosophical and theological explorations of the human condition, then I’d say this book is for you.

It’s encyclopaedic. All the necessary connections, references and links are here for you to check and explore or remind yourself about if you’re slightly lost or confused. There are reflections, perspectives and thinking points a-plenty, about characters, peoples and worlds, as well as more general mini-essays; it’s clearly a labour of love by someone who is even more taken with His Dark Materials than I am; it’s a serious companion to the novels, not a work of fandom.

At the same time, there are some things that are not explained, along with a few inevitable minor errors and inconsistencies. Why, for instance, is the college in Geneva St Jerome’s College? Geneva I understand, St Jerome I know about, but the connection in his mind that led Pullman to the name eludes me… And a real index at the end would be very useful, too. It’s not a book for constantly referring to as you’re reading – Pullman’s storytelling isn’t that impenetrable – but each time I’ve delved into this book and read large chunks of it has been after a reading of the novels, to help me get my thoughts and ideas clearer in my mind, and it has worked.

His Dark Materials: Parents and Children

January 16, 2023

During this re-read of HDM, I’ve found myself thinking about what Pullman has to say or suggest about parents and parenting. Lyra grows up not knowing who her parents are, thinking Asriel is her uncle, and eventually learning that Mrs Coulter is her mother; her father has obviously ensured she is provided for at Jordan College, while her mother has nothing to do with her until the story starts. As things develop, it’s evident neither is an average nor an ideal parent. Her mother has a lust for power and influence which leads her into embracing all kinds of evil; it becomes clear, however, that there is some kind of maternal bond as Mrs Coulter’s emotions and behaviour become much more complex and conflicted when she is with her daughter, and this foregrounds itself ever more strongly as the story progresses; are we intended, by the end of the story, to feel that the bond of love between parent and child is the strongest thing there can be?

Asriel has an obsession with his conflict with the Authority which blinds him completely to his daughter other than seeing her as a potential tool in the battle; this is crystallised in Lyra’s (unwitting but necessary) moment of betrayal at the end of Northern Lights, when her friend Roger is what Asriel needs to pursue his experiments… Asriel is capable of ‘mansplaining’ various aspects of his compulsion to Lyra, but there is no recognition of any bond between them.

We see similar conflicts when we learn about Will’s parents: his mother seems to suffer from a kind of mental disorder which manifests itself in obsessive-compulsive behaviours at times, and Will is clearly her carer rather than she his. As the storyline develops, it becomes clearer that there is a partial explanation for this, related to the disappearance of Will’s father, the secret work he was engaged in, and the interest of the authorities in his discoveries. We accept Will’s father’s disappearance as accidental, perhaps; we know of his concerns for his son via the letters and through what we learn of him via his alter ego, the shaman Stanislaus Grumman, in the parallel universe in which he is trapped, and their brief reunion before Grumman in killed by the witch is a touching and powerful moment, as is their encounter in the world of the dead later on.

Neither hero nor heroine has what most of us might class as an ordinary childhood. Is this significant? Well yes, in the sense that Pullman didn’t have to tell the story thus; it was a deliberate creative choice. But that’s a statement of the obvious, though some might overlook it. What we do have are two characters who grow up differently from, and much more independently than most children: Lyra has a carefree existence in her Oxford, while various people keep a weather eye on her in terms of safety; one or two people are aware of some significance to her future. Will is forced to be grownup before his time, keeping his mother safe, both by physically protecting her and by participating in her strange behaviours so as not to alarm her or others too much; lurking in the background is surely the possibility of both of them being institutionalised in different ways…

Both Will and Lyra are pretty self-sufficient and self-confident in their thinking and behaviour and this means the reader is more likely to take them seriously (pinch of salt here, ok, but you get my drift) when Pullman throws them into their respective adventures, and there is the potential for a good team, too. Then, in terms of the ultimate temptation which the entire plot must lead to, there is the credible bonding, firstly via their common experience of and survival of perils, and secondly because they perhaps experience for the first time (key word there, experience) real closeness on an equal level with another person. This closeness Will knows only via caring for a loved mother and an imagined bond with an absent father, Lyra only through her deep friendship with Roger and her horror at the ultimate betrayal of it; she only knows coldness from Asriel and she is appalled by he mother’s evil. And the reader cannot but approve of the temptation and the Fall, if indeed we use those warped religious concepts here.

Milton, Blake and Dust in Pullman’s His Dark Materials

January 15, 2023

Pullman acknowledges his debt to Milton’s Paradise Lost, a masterpiece of literature that nowadays eludes many people, for a number of reasons: it’s in verse, it’s very long (12 books), it’s about religion, it’s written in 17th century English, which is a little different from today’s, though far from impenetrable. Milton’s aim was to write the ultimate epic, the story of creation, and the redemption of humanity by Jesus’ death. He tells of the temptation of Eve and the Fall of the first humans, tempted by Satan.

Unfortunately for Milton, Satan takes over the story, becoming rather more of an interesting hero-figure than God or his son. And the question of the Fall also becomes double-edged: before it, Adam and Eve mimsy around the Garden of Eden blandly doing the gardening and having rather wet and innocent conversations, and a bit of very dull sex. Our feeling tends to be, well if this is paradise, I’m not sure I’m all that interested. The temptation is to take the forbidden fruit, of the knowledge of good and evil, after which they become humans as we know them: sex and arguments and blaming each other. And the real question is, why was the fruit forbidden? Because, is Milton’s and God’s answer, and that’s that… and we humans have become what we are because we have that knowledge. There are consequences: death. Adam and Eve have no idea what it is and cannot imagine it; we are the only species on the planet that knows of death and can contemplate it… And while I’m on with the Miltonic parallels, clearly there is an intended resemblance between Asriel’s armed camp preparing for battle with the Authority, and the building of Pandaemonium in the second book of Paradise Lost.

Pullman is fully aware of the importance of this difference between innocence and experience, and how it shapes us through our lives. There are things which happen to us which change us irreversibly, and which we cannot easily explain to others who have not experienced them. How do you describe to someone innocent the experience of an LSD trip, or sex for the first time, or indeed what love actually is? And, of course, you can’t rewind from any of these points, or turn back the clock: you are now changed, experienced. I have often felt that it’s perhaps easier for adult (experienced) readers to overlook this liberating aspect of Pullman’s stories, whereas they may perhaps be more eye-opening or life-affirming for younger readers. I don’t know for certain, of course; I’m on the wrong side of the fence here.

So in His Dark Materials, there are forces – organised religion – who would have humans remain permanently in a pre-pubescent state of innocent obedience, easily controlled. And the rebellion Pullman visualises is one against this tyranny, which might install the republic, rather than the kingdom of heaven. The more I think about it, the more utopian I find this notion, as well as extremely attractive. The idea of humans taking control over their own lives and their futures, rather than kowtowing to external forces, is one which has been revolutionary through the ages, and sadly, we are no nearer to achieving it…

Here is where Milton and Pullman overlap, for me: the crux is free will, which Christianity says we were given as a test: would we freely choose to obey and serve God, or would we wilfully choose what we shouldn’t and take the consequences? Milton feels the first humans made the wrong choice and it had to be rectified; Pullman lauds that choice, and has his Adam and Eve figures willingly give in to temptation and not regret it.

Dust. There is a serious amount of philosophical, even theological argument woven in to the novels; we don’t have to worry too much about it or strive too hard to comprehend it all. There is a serious information dump about Dust and its link with the Christian notion of original sin in the final chapters of Northern Lights, in conversation between Lyra and Asriel, and I’m still not sure how convincing I find this, given Lyra’s supposed age at this point. The concept is further developed in The Subtle Knife, where the arrival of Dust is linked back 33,000 years, presumably to the time of the first emergence of human consciousness in our species, which is where Pullman seems to situate the mythical Adam and Eve event and the original ‘Fall’. I’ve still not completely fathomed the significance, several times iterated, that things began to go seriously awry three centuries ago with the making of the knife: I can’t fit this timing in to a historical event, though I suppose we are at the start of the Enlightenment and the scientific era…perhaps a more astute reader can enlighten me here. Clearly these two dates are significant to Pullman’s ideas, and the second Fall, in the world of the mulefa, has the effect of reversing something.

Phillip Pullman: Parallel Universes

January 14, 2023

Pullman uses a common SF trope in His Dark Materials, the idea of a parallel universe, one which resembles our own, but with certain differences. The concept is often used to show an alternative history, such as in Philip K Dick’s well-known novel The Man in the High Castle, set in a United States where the Axis powers won the Second World War. Pullman’s parallel universe is rather different, in that it doesn’t represent an alternate direction after a fork in time, as it were, but is one of a myriad of possible universes, one that happens to be quite similar to our own.

The conception is carefully done, even down to the level of the language used, with different but logical terms used for ideas like electrical power; different technology, with airships being the modern mode of transport; countries having slightly different names reflecting the way in which recent history has also obviously been different. A great deal of careful thought has evidently gone into constructing this world, and in a sense Pullman has far less ‘conceptual freedom’ in the framing of such a world than an SF writer constructing a forked path. One might compare a twentieth century USA in which the Confederacy won the Civil War, as portrayed in Ward Moore’s interesting Bring the Jubilee, or a world several hundred years in our future, where the Nazis had been victorious in the twentieth century, as in Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night, which is all the more chilling a tale for its having been written before the Second World War…

Because Pullman posits an infinity of possible worlds, the other two he develops in depth can be radically different: the empty world of Cittàgazze bears some resemblance to our own, though we cannot really map very much of our world onto it, and the world of the Mulefa visited by Mary Malone and in which she plays out her role as temptress, is alien in terms of creatures, but flora and fauna are still recognisable.

Where Pullman is at his most radical, and deliberately so, is in his vision of daemons in Lyra’s world. Every human has a daemon – a creature of the opposite gender, and this bears some thinking about – from which they are inseparable; their form is mutable until maturity or puberty is reached, at which point they become fixed permanently. We need to think about what Pullman seems to be saying here. There is obviously something about the plasticity or mutability of human personality in the younger years, and the eventual development of a more recognisable and permanent personality as we grow older.

Is the daemon a soul? It’s an inseparable part of a human, visible rather than invisible as the soul posited by various religions in our world. And we see the interaction between human and daemon, through looks, closeness or distance, and conversation. There is also conversation between daemons…. And there is also the taboo on touching someone else’s daemon, as well as the horrific process being developed by the Magisterium and Mrs Coulter, to sever the connection between a human and their daemon; here Pullman wants his readers to think about, or imagine, what exactly it is that makes us human, and what the effect of such a severing would be. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, our attention is also focused on this question, and ultimately we are pushed to the realisation that the inhabitants of that society may look and behave like us at times, but they aren’t actually humans as we know them…

So what is the intercourse that goes on between human and daemon? It’s clearly far more than just a visible friend: there is advice, discussion, reflection back of ideas and decisions: daemon as therapist/counsellor? Somehow it’s possible to see humans in Lyra’s world as more fortunate than we are here in our world, in that such interaction is more obvious, more foregrounded? And yet Pullman also plays, at some length, with the notion that in our world, if we get to know and understand ourselves well enough, we can see our daemon and converse with it, too.

More to come…

Re-reading Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials

January 13, 2023

      This read took me just over a week; my first, in 2001 only two days. Pullman gets the story off to a cracking start, making Lyra’s Oxford intriguingly strange from the outset, through the different language used for all sorts of things in that parallel universe, as well as introducing complex human/daemon interaction straightaway: the reader’s attention is grabbed and shaped immediately.

There’s an effortless quality to Pullman’s prose, a style which I can see is attractive and instantly accessible to a young adult audience – which some think is his target audience, though I beg to differ – comprehensible yet accessible without being simplistic. Equally, it flows just as well for adult readers; quite an achievement. Pullman is a masterly storyteller.

There are complex, many-layered plots, and myriad characters, and yet Pullman leads his readers easily on; the story is easy to follow, and various complex ideas are carefully woven into the thread of the narrative. Readers are both entertained and challenged, I feel. And Pullman is strong in his portrayal of his characters’ feelings, too: Lyra’s sense of betrayal of her friend Roger at the end of the first book, Mrs Coulter’s growing closeness to Lyra, and the developing closeness between Lyra and Will through their adventures all feel natural and convincing.

For this reading, and prompted also by the last series on television, I focused particularly on the complex and developing relationship between Lyra and Mrs Coulter, that is, between mother and daughter. I felt the TV adaptation lacked a measure of clarity in this respect. I was also interested in just how much was changed for the small screen; obviously a great deal had to be left out, as The Amber Spyglass runs to almost 500 pages in print. It was also interesting to note that for the screen, Will and Lyra appeared rather older and more mature (only a bit, but to me noticeably) than in the novels, where we are explicitly told that they are both 12 years old at one point. Then I felt a bit churlish and thought about how much time might be needed for all the travelling and all the adventures in the three books together to actually take place and I could accept the idea of their being several years older by the end of The Amber Spyglass. The second ‘Fall’ has to feel natural and convincing and in my judgement, Pullman carries this off pretty well.

In the end, His Dark Materials is only a story. It’s very well-narrated, respecting the intelligence of the reader; it’s an easy (in the sense of flowing) read; it has been extremely well translated to television in the recent three-part adaptation, although, after re-reading the novels, it’s evident how much has inevitably had to be cut or glossed over in that adaptation; equally, it’s surprising how few details have actually been changed…

Only a story… but, as with all the best stories, it is more than just a tale, it is a story to made its readers think, if they wish to. What are good parents, and how are they good (or not)? What is freedom, and free will? How much of it do we/ can we have? How much of it do we want? What about institutions that exert power and control over us? Even if they are doing it – as they say – for our own good? And how might we re-take some/ all of that control back for ourselves? What makes us human? Do we have souls? What goes on inside us, in the deepest recesses of our minds? What is good, and what is evil? And so much more. We don’t have to engage with any or all of those questions, but if we are human, if we are curious, then the chances are that we will. And we are brought back to that initial curiosity which – for Milton in a bad way, for Pullman in a good way, led the original Adam and Eve of the creation myth – to Fall, or to become fully human. Either way, we are experienced, we cannot turn back the clock.

The final message that Pullman leaves his readers with is clear at the end of The Amber Spyglass: we only have this one life, that we know about and are part of, and it’s our duty to ourselves to live life to the full, to make the best possible use of it in terms of using our intelligence, developing ourselves, understanding ourselves and our world, and making our best efforts to do good while we are here. Amen to that.

A A Milne: Winnie Ille Pu

August 14, 2022

     I have two A-levels in Latin, and was originally accepted to read Latin and French at university, but that is another story. And Winnie the Pooh was either the first or second book I ever owned as a small child. This book I acquired over thirty years ago; I’ve dipped into it occasionally, but something made me pick it up and (attempt to) read it from cover to cover. It was hard.

Having wrestled successfully with Virgil, Tacitus and Cicero – the three most challenging authors I met – I suppose I expected it to be relatively easy, a children’s book after all… It is fifty years this year since I passed the last of my A-levels, and it shows: I’ve done nothing with my Latin ever since, apart from reading church inscriptions and the inscriptions in museums or at Hadrian’s Wall, and occasionally looking at Church Latin, missals and the Vulgate and the like. So my vocab was rusty and my grammar even rustier: it was a real challenge and I think I’d be pushing it to say I understood 50%.

Of course, my prior knowledge of the stories in English helped a lot; they are classics (!) and once you’ve read them in your youth and then somewhat later to your own offspring, they are permanently etched in your memory. So there were plenty of prompts; long-forgotten vocab slowly came back, and I remembered to look carefully at the case of nouns, which helped quite a bit.

The other major difficulty was that it is a children’s book: the vocab and concepts are rather different from Ciceronian oratory, epic poetry or Roman history, so one is trying to decipher or decode something completely different. And I did find myself in absolute admiration of the translator’s work, for he – Alexander Lenard – will have been schooled in the same classical texts as I was, and yet has managed fluently to convert the stories into what felt like beautiful, flowing Latin. I didn’t dig out my ancient Latin dictionary, or even go online to look words up, realising that many of those I didn’t understand would be Pooh-related rather than Ciceronian, and so most unlikely to figure in a dictionary anyway.

A minor but enjoyable diversion, probably not one I’ll be repeating in this existence. And I was more than a little disturbed, in these PC days, at the initial desire of Pooh and Piglet to extirpate Kanga and Roo as interlopers who didn’t belong in the forest… O tempora, o mores!

Philip Pullman: The Tiger in the Well

July 30, 2022

     Another ripping yarn, and with characters and events linked to the others. Reading this, years after meeting His Dark Materials, you can see an accomplished writer, assured of his audience, shaping up to write his masterpiece. There is, for example, a clear forerunner of the sinister Mrs Coulter and her monkey daemon in the villain of this novel, whom we previously met in The Ruby in the Smoke; indeed you can see how the whole concept of the externalised aspect of the personality and soul which a daemon is, may have developed from here.

We are thrust head-first into an outrageous situation and mystery: why should anyone forge a marriage and then a divorce with the aim of seizing a child? Pullman also hints at the darker side of sexuality in Victorian times: paedophilia is not a late twentieth century evil, and some readers may recall Anthony Horowitz digging deeper into this murky cesspit in The House of Silk, one of his excellent additions to the Sherlock Holmes canon.

Pullman makes clear the potential for unfairness in the application of the law of the land, with the balance in favour of those with money and influence, and also in favour of men in an age when women were mere chattels. There is no protection for the innocent or the underdog when they are faced with corruption and crooked lawyers and policemen.

Equally, Pullman creates strong female characters, independent women with determination, living towards the end of the nineteenth century when women were getting their struggle for equal rights and the vote under way. There is a strong advocacy of social justice in the book, and somehow Pullman just manages to avoid being preachy, and sliding into a roman à thèse for young adults.

The plot of the novel involves a revenge plot consequent on the dénouement of The Ruby in the Smoke, and a good deal focused on poverty in the East End of London, as well as the anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia which led to an influx of immigration, consequent exploitation, and resentment by the local population which was fomented by unscrupulous politicians for their own dark purposes: Pullman seems to be suggesting that nothing much has changed in a century or more in this country. It’s pretty unputdownable, really: well-written, fast-paced and with plenty of twists in the plot, cliff-hangers, and interesting incidental characters. I’d have loved meeting a novel this well-written in my schooldays of exploring Stamford Public Library.

Philip Pullman: The Tin Princess

July 29, 2022

     This is another of the four Sally Lockheart novels, detective stories of a sort, set in the late nineteenth century. It’s clearly a tribute to Sherlock Holmes in some ways, in terms of time and place, and there is also a gang of helpful street children clearly modelled on the Baker Street Irregulars. There are also links to an earlier novel in the series, The Ruby in the Smoke.

What interests me is that Pullman’s target audience is evidently younger teenagers, even more so than with His Dark Materials, but his readers are treated from the start as intelligent and thoughtful, and Pullman weaves in complex ideas and themes without ever being patronising, preachy or moralising.

It’s a fast-paced story, as Pullman knows that is what his readers will expect. The setting quickly shifts from Victorian London to an invented, small Central European kingdom threatened by the global ambitions of both the German and Austro-Hungarian Empires. This was perhaps the aspect of the plot that I found least convincing, but then I’m an ageing reader well-read in history, and of Eastern European origin myself.

Pullman doesn’t avoid emotional attachments between his characters, and complex relationships either; nor does he dwell too long or in too much detail on them. It really is quite eye-opening to see how such a skilled writer has a sharp focus on the people he’s writing for. As in his better-known series His Dark Materials and The Book of Dust, Pullman shows his strong belief and trust in uncorrupted young people, who will be decent and do the right thing given the opportunity; corruption and deceit comes with adulthood, and this theme is obviously developed more thoroughly and in a much more complex manner in the later books, where innocence and experience are more foregrounded, and the myth of the Fall is much deliberately under the microscope.

It’s a ripping yarn in which despite the heroic efforts of the young, in the end evil triumphs – Pullman is only being harshly realistic here, and in our sad world, young people need such lessons – and adults are exposed as corrupt, servile and hypocritical. And Pullman does ultimately leave his readers with a glimmer of hope at the end, in that there are also some decent grownups in the world too. But it’s clear, good must be fought for, cannot be assumed.

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