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Things children still know that we grown-ups appear have forgotten

2011 August 19
by Paul Vallely

I have just been on holiday with a diligent reader.  Faced with a book which is irritating her she will read onto the end to have her irritation confirmed.  I am altogether less assiduous. If I am not enjoying a book I stop reading it. That might reveal a lack of application. But life is too short for duff books, and goodness knows there are enough of them around.

I have been lucky on holiday. Apart from a bit of grown-up reading (Alasdair Macintyre’s After Virtue which previously I have only read bits of) I have been reading children’s books, or rather we have been reading them aloud to one another, which is itself a great family activity, but don’t divert me onto that. We got through Skellig by David Almond, The Ghost of Thomas Kempe by Penelope Lively, Black Jack by Leon Garfield and The Owl Service by Alan Garner.

Our reading was punctuated by comments about the contemporary novels that the Diligent Reader was ploughing through. An interesting contrast emerged. So many modern novels, at least those which like to think of themselves as literary, feel it incumbent on them to reflect a world which is arbitrary, unfair and meaningless, or at any rate where meaning is striven after feebly by inadequate human beings. It is a worldview which is still largely existentialist in its underpinnings. And it is dominated by what Alasdair MacIntryre calls emotivism in which morality and purpose are about not much more than preference.

The children’s books we read, by contrast, are still happy to occupy a land shaped by story and where stories are carriers of significance. And they are freer in the kinds of significance they encounter for they lack the shuffling embarrassment that accompanies many adult novelists forays into such territory.

Is Skellig an angel or an owlman? To what extent are we all fallen angels? Does William Blake have as much to say to us as Charles Darwin? David Almond implies all these questions without articulating them in a simple tale of compelling narrative thrust. Penelope Lively’s is a less mystical world but one in which ghosts are taken for granted because they make possible an imaginative interplay with the past which tells us something important about the values of the present.

These are worlds where other things are possible than the merely realistic. Could the giant robber Black Jack really have saved himself from strangulation when he was hanged by inserting a metal tube into his throat before stepping out onto Tyburn gallows? It doesn’t matter so much as the loyalty and love, duplicity and greed of a picaresque 18th century world of travelling fairs and madhouses. In The Owl Service Alan Garner blurs even further the boundaries of myth and history, perception and reality, with a claustrophobic emotional force that teaches of the power of the unstated.

Novels are the moral representatives of their culture. So much of what passes for a clever reflection of reality relies upon a theoretical underpinning which, were we to examine it, would be seen as problematic. Contemporary fiction written for adults has abandoned the Aristotelean notion that that you can’t really understand people, or properly judge their actions, unless you have an understanding of human nature which offers an explanation of the purpose of life.

Yet so many adult novels mistake sophistication for what is pointless and barren.  The best children’s books by contrast are shot through with what After Virtue would characterise as a pre-Protestant, pre-Enlightenment instinct about human nature. The stories we tell ourselves are what give meaning to existence. Thank goodness our children are hearing the better ones.

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