The Rebels


A recent headline on Bridge To The Stars reported a story on, the essence of which was that many children's books - the Harry Potter series was singled out - encourage their readers to be good little boys and girls, always doing what they are told and believing that "adults know best".  It went on to cite His Dark Materials as a counter-example.

I'd like to add a couple more examples.  The obvious first choice is Alice In Wonderland which, together with its sequel Through The Looking Glass subverted and redefined the genre of children's literature.

You could say that Lewis Carroll wasn't a proper grown-up; but a child in adult's clothing.  He never lost his delight in games and puzzles.  An extraordinarily intelligent philosopher and mathematician, he realised early on that a child-like wonder in and curiosity about the way the world works were the keys to his genius.  These days we'd call him a geek or a nerd .  He asked the right questions - the kind of questions which a child asks unafraid and an adult is too self-conscious to express.  After all, adults know everything, don't they?

So - go ask Alice.  Does she defer to adults?  No - "You're nothing but a pack of cards!" she says at the end of Alice in Wonderland, taking control of the whole ridiculous situation which adult systems have constructed. "Off with her head!" the Queen cries, but Alice does not submit. In fact, she pays very little attention to the advice offered to her by any adult or adult figure during the course of the story.  If a bottle says "Drink Me" then she drinks its contents because she wants to, not because she's been told to (or told not to). 

This was something new. Children's stories of the time were mostly didactic - full of little morals and homilies for the instruction of their juvenile readers.  Alice turns these lessons on their head.  Here's an example. First, the original:

Isaac Watts - Idleness

'Tis the voice of the sluggard; I heard him complain,
You have wak'd me too soon, I must slumber again.

Oh yes - time to get up and get busy. There's a British Empire to build and run. Now for Carroll:

'Tis the voice of the lobster; I heard him declare,
You have baked me too brown, I must sugar my hair.

There's something about the word "lobster" that makes Carroll's version irresistible. Here's the immensely tedious Isaac Watts again:

How doth the little busy bee
Improve each shining hour,
And gather honey all the day
From ev'ry open flow'r?

And Carroll's riposte:

How doth the little crocodile
Improve his shining tail,
And pour the waters of the Nile
On every golden scale!

How cheerfully he seems to grin,
How neatly spreads his claws,
And welcomes little fishes in,
With gently smiling jaws!

An ounce of ridicule, as they say...


Now for something completely different.  The artist, novelist and poet Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast Trilogy (Titus Groan, Gormenghast, Titus Alone) was first published just after the Second World War.  It is set in an enormous castle - the Gormenghast of the title.  The everyday life of the castle is run - and has been run for time immemorial - according to  a set of strictly defined rules which take the form of an endless succession of meaningless ceremonies which must be observed by everyone from the castle's ruler, the Earl of Groan, down to the lowliest kitchen-boy.

Everybody in the story - everybody - accepts these rules even if, like Steerpike, they appear not to; with one exception.  Titus, the 77th Earl of Groan.   It's Titus who first finds a way out of the castle (although he persuades his sister Fuchsia to follow him).  It's Titus who, at the age of one, throws the symbols of office into Gormenghast Lake.  It's Titus who is locked in the Lichen Fort again and again for transgressions of the Law.

There are other characters in the story who appear to rebel, but their rebellions all turn out to operate within the system.  Doctor Prunesquallor is strictly orthodox.   Fuchsia Groan is lost in romantic dreams, but she never considers that they might lead her to a place that is not Gormenghast.  Even the villain Steerpike who appears, even as he murders his way through the hierarchy of the castle, to be trying to destroy its structures is in fact only interested in controlling them - a very different matter.

The broad tradition of the fairytale or fantasy story is that the young hero (or occasional heroine) leaves the safety and comfort of home, has many exciting adventures in foreign parts and, when he has grown into adulthood, returns to enter into his inheritance.  One example - The Odyssey - will do for all.  The Gormenghast Trilogy turns this convention upside down.  It is only when Titus has earned the right to rule Gormenghast by killing the upstart Steerpike that he can finally renounce his inheritance (at the end of the second novel, Gormenghast).  In Titus Alone, the hero does indeed travel in the world and have adventures, but when he returns to the neighbourhood of the castle he again rejects it, not even staying to visit the grave of his beloved sister.

Like Carroll, Mervyn Peake was child-like. For example, he bought a house for his wife and family and, not having the capital to purchase it outright, took out a mortgage from a building society.  It came as an complete shock to him to discover that he was expected to make monthly repayments of the loan.  He thought that the building society had given him the money.

The Gormenghast books can be very hard going at times and more than one reader has thrown them at the wall in frustration. It's doubtful whether they can truly be considered to be children's books (although I read them as a child).  The BBC dramatisation of three or four years ago was an honourable failure. But there's one last point to make.  Their author died in 1968, of the effects of Parkinson's Disease (a particularly cruel fate for an artist who had such precise control of the pencil and pen).  1968 was the year that the dreams of 1967 became politicised and rebellious - on the streets of Paris and Prague and in the music charts.  Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds turned into Revolution.   She's A Rainbow became Street Fighting Man.  It's an irony that Peake would have appreciated.

Links to Alice and the world of Lewis Carroll can be found everywhere.  Mervyn Peake's son Sebastian runs a small but authoritative site here: Mervyn Peake.