Friday, September 6, 2013

When the World Turns Grey: Two Juvenile Novels in Contrast

“I think it is possible that by confining your child to blameless stories of child life in which nothing at all alarming ever happens, you would fail to banish the terrors and would succeed in banishing all that can ennoble them or make them endurable. For in the fairy tales, side by side with the terrible figures, we find the immemorial comforters and protectors, the radiant ones. . . It would be nice if no little boy in bed, hearing, or thinking he hears a sound, were ever at all frightened. But if he is going to be frightened, I think it better that he should think of giants and dragons than merely of burglars. And I think St. George, or any bright champion in armour, is a better comfort than the idea of the police.” C.S. Lewis

Last week I read two juvenile novels with superficial similarities. Both could be called fairytales, and both center around parentless children who work for dishonest showmen. They prompted me to think about how juvenile fiction presents good and evil. How should an author communicate the messy reality of life without damaging a child’s sense of right and wrong? How grey can you go?

First, a summary of both books:

The Charlatan’s Boy
Jonathan Rogers, 2010
(Classified as Young Adult, but safe and simple enough for younger readers)

“… when it comes to knowing where you come from, you got to take somebody else’s word for it. That’s where things has always got ticklish for me. I only know one man who might be able to tell me where I come from, and that man is a liar and a fraud.”

Grady is an extremely ugly orphan who knows nothing about his own parents or origins. He travels with the fraudulent Professor Floyd and performs as a “Genuine He-Feechie Alive and in the Flesh,” the main prop of the professor’s lectures on the Feechie folk and their habits. However, as fewer and fewer folk maintain belief in the mythical swamp-dwellers, business dries up. Eventually the professor decides to fabricate a great Feechie scare in order to revive the once-lucrative trade.

Although the story takes place on the imaginary island of Corenwald, it is steeped in the vernacular story-telling tradition of the Old South. Grady’s language and outlook are engagingly atmospheric while remaining down-to-earth. His personality is appealing. Although he suffers from the isolation of someone who belongs nowhere and must deceive almost everyone, he is a kind-hearted soul who attempts to remain honest and who reflects on the nature of truth. He is also loyal to his unloving master because, as he puts it, he has no one else to love. Fairly simple in both plot and character development, the book is full of humor and a touch of melancholy. It would appeal especially to preteen and young teen boys.

Splendors and Glooms
Laura Amy Schlitz, 2012
(Classified as Children’s Fiction, but somewhat disturbing and complex)

“ ‘But you were not made for weeping, little madama. You should laugh—as you did today—and you should dance. You shall dance…’ Against her will, Clara’s eyes met his. It seemed to her that they were terrible eyes: the white slightly reddened, the irises and opaque as granite. She could not look away.”

The daughter of a nineteenth-century London doctor, Clara is a child of wealth and privilege. Yet her life is nearly unbearable because of the obsessive grief that fills her home and the secret sense of guilt she carries (a modern reader would call it survivor’s guilt). Lizzie Rose and Parsefal are orphans who do their best to survive. Lizzie Rose is a kindly, resourceful soul who attempts to maintain good grammar and respectability. The rough-spoken Parsefal is a liar and a thief who frequently rejects Lizzie Rose’s kindnesses, but at heart (although he may not realize it) loves her with a brother’s loyalty. Both are wards to a cruel and unscrupulous man named Grisini who is master of the fantoccini (marionettes).  Cassandra, an old woman, is a dying witch trapped by her own magic. The stories of all five characters intertwine as the children are caught in a dark world of secrets, magic, and the quest for power.

This story does not hesitate to delve into the harsher realities of the character’s lives. As an unprotected and rapidly maturing girl, Lizzie Rose must fend off an incident or two of sexual harassment. As a child who has been knocked about by life and abused by Grisini, Parsefal is troubled by nightmares and buried memories. The magic that is worked by both the witch and Grisini is dark and frightening and threatens to swallow up all of the children. Although the protagonists are somewhat younger than Feechie-boy Grady, their story requires an older reader. A few scenes present overtones that would go over the head of a child but left me unsettled. In one, Grisini approaches twelve-year-old Clara on the stairs and interacts with her in a way that she finds frightening. The scene includes the lines, “He set his forefinger in the narrow groove about her lips, commanding her silence…. His finger descended, grazing the lace on the bodice of her dress.” Clara is repulsed, trapped, and won’t be able to tell her parents about this. Grisini is placing her under the enchantment that will allow him to kidnap her, and I can’t help but feel that the language suggests a predator grooming a child for future molestation. Splendors and Glooms is well-written but perhaps not appropriate for the youngest members of its audience.

Second, the issue at hand:

The contrast between these two books raises questions about the purpose of juvenile literature. I do not object to dark or frightening content in a children’s story. That’s what fairy tales are all about. As C. S. Lewis says, “Since it is so likely that [children] will meet cruel enemies, let them at least have heard of brave knights and heroic courage.”  Or as G. K. Chesterton explained, “Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms [the child] for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God, that there is something in the universe more mystical than darkness, and stronger than strong fear.” I won’t be focusing on how much darkness is appropriate in a children’s novel. Instead, I want to look at the level of greyness. There will be spoilers ahead.

The heroes in traditional folk and fairytales tend to be universal, and the villains remain shrouded in mystery. When we change this tradition and write novelized fairytales, do we lose the moral clarity of the source? All the characters in Splendors and Glooms can be viewed as classic fairytale archetypes. Clara is the enchanted princess, Parsefal is the Ash Lad, Lizzie Rose is the good and faithful sister, Grisini is the evil magician, and Cassandra is the witch. Yet they are developed into living, human characters with strengths and flaws. Lizzie Rose’s goodness is irritating to some characters and occasionally prevents her from understanding them. Her role shrinks as the children’s danger grows. Parsefal’s dishonesty and selfish tendencies are treated as simply the result of his upbringing, and ultimately of little matter because he also possesses loyalty to his friends (although he is also unable to defeat the evilness of the witch's magic-- it is the enchanted princess who must save herself and the others). None of the children ever face the need to repent of wrongdoing—anything wrong that they do is simply part of who they are, and does not outweigh their goodness. The witch, on the other hand, is bad but not all bad. Despite her desire to sacrifice one of them in order to gain freedom, she suffers strong enough feelings of guilt to demonstrate that she is worthy of compassion. She does not set out to rescue the children, but her interests sometimes align with theirs and therefore she protects them against the more purely evil Grisini. In the end the children manage to save both themselves and the witch. They are not great warriors, nor are they aided by any magical/mysterious/godlike beings— as with most modern protagonists, it is their own strength and wits that they must fall back on. In the end they care for the witch compassionately. She leaves them her estate in her will. This is not quite the pattern of a traditional tale. Instead, it is the answer to life found in almost all modern books (“reach deep into your heart, find strength, and save yourself.”

Children possess rather black and white minds. They are still forming their ideas of normal, and their sense of normal is shaped by a budding sense of good and evil. Is it the role of a fairytale to teach them that being compassionate means accepting other people’s flaws, especially when the tale does not address any of these flaws as wrongs in need of atonement or forgiveness before acceptance is possible? Does delving into the tortured back-story of a villainess humanize evil, and therefore weaken the good that is necessary to defeat evil? It is true that real life is grey and messy, because life is full of flawed human beings who sin yet are loved by God. Yet truth is solid and non-grey. Until a child possesses a solid understanding of moral truth, should he be exposed to grey portrayals of morality? These are real questions to which I have not yet formulated answers, not merely rhetorical ones.

The Charlatan’s Boy avoids most of these issues by keeping the story simple. Grady always tries to do the right thing. He too is compassionate toward his master, but merely because of his own character rather than because of any nuances in Floyd. This story focuses on goodness. Grady does not save himself. Instead, outside intervention proves that someone, somewhere, loves and remembers him. Yet he is good, and when he finally discovers his real family and identity, the triumph of persistent, loving goodness is clear. However, I think it weakens the story that Floyd’s badness, and Grady’s response to it, is underdeveloped. We are not made to feel that Floyd is despicable. This keeps the story light and safe, but makes the ending (in which Floyd is willing to sacrifice and abandon Grady) feel abrupt and overly convenient to the plot. The victory of St. George is perhaps weakened by an underdeveloped dragon.

However, perhaps all of this obscures the key point. While writing this review it occurred to me that the problem is not in how the characters are portrayed. The problem is in how the characters are saved. When a fairytale tells children, “There is evil in the world, and you must save yourself,” it does not provide the comfort that C. S. Lewis and Chesterton described. Even though it breaks the “rules” of modern novel-writing, perhaps a true fairytale must include the intervention of another being who aids the hero. This being might be an advisory spirit who tells the hero about the giant’s weakness, or an old woman who provides a sword of power. It might be an Aslan who dies for a character or even a Gollum who bites off a finger when the hero fails. Such a story is not easy to write well (as evidenced by the fact that even though The Charlatan’s Boy fulfilled this requirement, I did not enjoy it as much as Splendors and Glooms), but it is a true fairytale and therefore a beautiful and helpful one. It fits more realistically with life and it breaks down the frighteningly rigid individualism of modern culture. It is good. What do you think? Is it a problem that all modern protagonists must save themselves?

*Fairytale paintings by Norwegian artist Theodor Kittelsen (1851-1914)

Somewhat Related Reading

The Case for Good Taste in Children's Books (includes some interesting points about the effects of YA literature). 

Unsettling Wonder (read a discussion of the "Mythic Arts," how they are cultivated, and how their chief end is a sense of wonder). 

How to Survive a Fairytale (just for fun and humor).

Why You Can't Read Twilight (a mother's letter to her baby daughter).

I'm linking up to Saturday Review of Books
Check out lots of other book-related posts and reviews.

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