Cherchez l'enfant

It looks like a golden age for children's writing. A British tradition has been reinvigorated by two good, though overrated, authors. JK Rowling and Philip Pullman differ from previous classic authors in aiming at a slightly older age range, and their metaphysics are silly. Still, they reflect our times
October 21, 2005

When I was at prep school at the end of the 1950s, Wednesday was a red-letter day, because it was then that Eagle arrived. This was the only comic that we were allowed to read, and it is a tribute to Eagle's quality that we revelled in it even though it was lawful. The first two pages depicted the adventures of Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future, who did battle with the totalitarian green men of Venus, the Treens, led by their evil genius, the Mekon. That was the best of the adventure strips; the others were of variable quality, but none was contemptible either as story or as artwork. There was Luck of the Legion, a rip-off of Beau Geste; there was a cowboy, Jeff Arnold, Rider of the Range; there was Storm Nelson, who sailed round the world with a small private fleet foiling villains; and there was historical adventure with Jack O'Lantern, an English boy living in Napoleonic times. The best of the funny strips was Harris Tweed, Extra Special Agent, featuring the exploits of an incompetent sleuth; wittily drawn by John Ryan, it was surprisingly sophisticated in its humour. There were other features beside the strips. The centrefold was a cut-open picture of something mechanical, usually a ship, plane or train. There was a page of reporting from Macdonald Hastings, Eagle Special Investigator. There was a letter from the editor and items about hobbies. On the back page there was a different kind of strip, telling the life story of a real person. Sometimes the subject was a famous Christian, like St Paul or Livingstone, but more often he was a secular hero such as Marco Polo or Baden-Powell. Eagle's greatest ever success was the life of Winston Churchill, skilfully told by Clifford Makins and superbly illustrated by Frank Bellamy. I can still relive the excitement with which we clustered round each new Eagle on its arrival to see the latest pictures of second world war blitz and battle.

Eagle is so vastly different from anything on the market today that it has become a document of historical and sociological importance; nostalgia is therefore not only a temptation but a duty. It was edited by Marcus Morris, an elegantly unconventional clergyman, who had founded it with the aim of improving boys' reading matter. Like Baden-Powell, founder of the scout movement, Morris understood what made boys tick. Whereas The Boy's Own Paper (then nearing the end of its long life) and Young Elizabethan exuded a perceptible atmosphere of moral uplift, there was no feeling with Eagle that you were being patronised or got at. And indeed, part of Morris's secret was that he respected his young readers. He believed that small boys could appreciate a product of high quality (the artwork in Eagle Annual above all, which came out each year at Christmas time, was of a standard that one can barely imagine today). He also trusted their attention span: the life of Churchill ran for a year and at least one of the Dan Dare stories for even longer. He assumed that boys would be keen on science and machinery, and could be educated intelligently in these subjects. Some things in Eagle were more grown-up in presentation than a good deal that passes for cultural programming on television now. Marcus Morris would not have dreamed of patronising a nine year old the way that Simon Schama or Tony Robinson patronise the adult public.

Much in the media today is designed deliberately to debase public taste: Viz and FHM, Big Brother and I'm a Celebrity… achieve their success by coarsening the spirits of their consumers. It is hard to conceive of anyone now starting a magazine to elevate and enlarge young people's experience, let alone bringing it off, and that tells us something disagreeable about the present time. To be sure, Eagle had its limitations, and it was the product of its era. (Morris gave up the editorship in 1959, and it then went rapidly downhill; by the end of the 1960s it was dead.) The arts were absent from it, even pop music, and despite the editor's dog-collar, there was no religion either, except when a Christian hero was on the back page. The world it depicted was almost totally male, with the curious exception of Professor Jocelyn Peabody, the brainy boffin in Dan Dare, who was young, blonde, bossy and looked great in a spacesuit. Conversely, Eagle's sister paper, Girl, was almost as thoroughly female: Susan of St Bride's (the adventures of a student nurse) and Belle of the Ballet were two of the most popular strips. The heroes were all unmarried, and there was never a hint of sex.

The world depicted in Eagle also presupposed deference and a class structure. Typically, the hero was a clean-cut Englishman of at least the middle class with one or more sidekicks from the lower orders. So although Dan Dare was set incredibly far forward in the future (the late 1990s), he still had a faithful batman: Albert Fitzwilliam Digby, a rotund salt of the earth spaceman from Wigan and a spiritual descendant of Sam Weller. Storm Nelson was elegantly square-jawed, but his crew were a gallery of regional types. The English Sergeant Luck was accompanied on his adventures by a Belgian corporal and a fat Italian private, a comic wop straight out of music hall. Jack O'Lantern's best friend was the gypsy boy, Rollo. Even Jeff Arnold looked like an English gentleman in a cowboy costume; his loyal henchman was the grizzled old-timer Luke, who, like Captain Haddock in the Tintin books, managed to swear lustily while remaining wholly pure of speech ("Goldarn it, them hornswogglin' varmints," and so on). Harris Tweed was a subversive burlesque of this set-up, his blunders being invariably retrieved by an anonymous lad in short trousers (the reader himself, of course), referred to only as "Boy." On the other hand, Eagle was unsnobbish: there was little if any of the lust for vicarious poshness which is partly parodied and partly indulged in the Harry Potter books.

But perhaps the greatest difference between Eagle and children's reading today is this: the stories were set in the real world, with no recourse to magic or fantasy. Dan Dare's adventures were hardly an exception, as they really represented the ethos of the wartime RAF projected into the future. The dramatis personae even included Sondar the good Treen, a kind of "good German" who became prime minister of Venus after one of the Mekon's many overthrows. If you can imagine Adenauer with a head the colour of a Granny Smith, you have Sondar. One of Marcus Morris's reasons for starting Eagle in 1950 was that existing comic heroes, like Superman, relied on magic or supernatural power to defeat their adversaries, rather than courage or resource. He may have been lucky in his timing: the imaginative life of English boys in the 1950s was dominated by the second world war. Our playground games were based around bashing Jerries, and we competed in swapping stories about our fathers' military exploits. The closeness of the war may have given our generation a taste for "real" adventure, as conversely computer games may encourage the flight to fantasy now. The novels written for boys (and girls) were mostly historical fiction and romance. Even some of the trashier comic books purported to represent recent history: War Picture Library was of course a caricature of actual war ("Donner und Blitzen! Ze English pig-dog has escaped"), but at least it aspired towards reality. We did read Superman and Batman under the bedclothes—as they were forbidden—but I think we knew even then that they were inferior stuff.

Yet the great classics of children's literature are set in a realm of fantasy. In earlier generations, children read these or had them read to them when they were quite small, before moving on to more naturalistic fiction. All that has now changed. The new superstars of children's literature, JK Rowling and Philip Pullman, both aim at an age range older than that for which most of the classics were written. Yet they have stuck to a framework originally devised for younger readers. A very common pattern has a child carried from reality into an imaginary world, and usually coming back to normality at the end. It appears in Kingsley's The Water Babies and was then established by Lewis Carroll in his Alice books. A variant form of it is the story in which an ordinary person is taken away from his everyday life into unexpected adventure before returning to it again: this is the form of The Wind in the Willows and Tolkien in The Hobbit (and in The Lord of the Rings, for that matter). Since Alice, it has been used again and again, for example in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, the Narnia books, Where the Wild Things Are and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Both Rowling and Pullman rely on it, but apply it to a series which makes increasingly ambitious claims for itself. How well does this work? Have they enlarged the possibilities of children's writing? Are they, like the magical realists, freeing fiction from the shackles of naturalism? Or have they developed an uneasy hybrid? The answer to such questions may lie in understanding what makes children's books good and sometimes great, or at least what has done so far. So here are a few "rules," suggestions or provocations.

The best children's books are British. We dominate this art form as surely as the Germans and Austrians dominate the symphony. Carroll, Beatrix Potter and AA Milne lead the field, with several others not far behind, among them Kipling, Kenneth Grahame, Willans and Searle (the Molesworth books) and Roald Dahl—other readers will have their own candidates. My candidate for the best children's book written outside Britain is the Australian classic The Magic Pudding, by Norman Lindsay, first published in 1918, and that is very much in the British tradition. Tintin is a work of genius, but it is a comic strip, not a book and perhaps it does not count. Otherwise, the modern children's books of other nations do not rise above the second rank. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz has one or two bright ideas, but most of it is pretty flabby, and one suspects that it is only American nationalism (and of course the Judy Garland film) that has made it durable. The books of the tiresome and self-congratulatory Lemony Snicket, a big success at present in America, are sometimes described over there as having a British flavour; this may refer to their (deliberately) uptight prose style, or perhaps to rather too obvious a dependence on Roald Dahl.

For some reason, Oxford is the world capital of children's literature: Alice, The Wind in the Willows, The Hobbit, CS Lewis's Narnia, and now Pullman's trilogy. (And Christ Church plays the role of Hogwarts's school hall in the Potter films.) Perhaps the home of lost causes is the home of perpetual adolescence as well.

The best children's books have at least one really first-class character in them. Lewis Carroll and Beatrix Potter were able to produce one memorable character after another. No other children's writers are as fertile, but think of Mr Toad, Pooh and Eeyore, Molesworth and Fotherington-Thomas, and Captain Haddock. All of these lift the books in which they appear to a new level. Rowling seems unable to create good characters—it is her most conspicuous weakness—and for this reason alone I would not put her in the first rank of children's writers. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory has been so immensely popular for 40 years that it may seem to be above criticism, but it is weakened by Roald Dahl's failure with the confectioner Willie Wonka himself, whose characterlessness is a flaw running through the whole book.

Though there are some famous examples of novelists with only one book to their name, most of the best writers for adults get better with experience. By contrast, it seems to be hard for the very best children's writers to repeat their success, and some of the wisest of them have known as much. It may be that children's literature, at its highest, requires a spontaneity and a kind of purity of vision that is especially hard to replicate; and it may be significant that several of the best of these books, including Alice in Wonderland, came into being accidentally, as stories told to children which were written up later. In Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll did produce a sequel as good as the original, but there is no third Alice book, and his Sylvie and Bruno is a disaster. There are only two Pooh books. There was to be no sequel to The Wind in the Willows (Kenneth Grahame had earlier written The Golden Age and Dream Days, but these are really books about childhood rather than books for children themselves). Beatrix Potter's later works have been so deeply forgotten that few people even realise that they exist, and even among her canon there is some falling-off in the later books. The first two Molesworth books were the best; the series was cut short by Geoffrey Willans's early death, but one may doubt whether he could have kept it going much longer. Rowling and Pullman have both plainly run short of ideas as their series have progressed. Roald Dahl is the exception, his masterpiece The Witches coming late in his career. Its ending, with the boy narrator trapped in the body of a mouse and doomed to an early death, is in the conventional sense unhappy, but it is also redemptive. Vivid, poignant and entirely unsentimental, this is perhaps the finest children's book of the last 50 years.

The best children's books tend to be very well illustrated. This ought to be a matter of more or less pure luck, but perhaps we may say of children's writers what Napoleon said of his generals: the better they were, the luckier they got. Tenniel's illustrations for Alice may be a little ponderous, but they have canonical authority. Beatrix Potter's tales are Gesamtkunstwerke, in which her text and watercolours are inseparable. Norman Lindsay illustrated his Magic Pudding himself, and very well too. Willans and Searle were joint creators of Molesworth as surely as Gilbert and Sullivan were of the Savoy operas. Milne is unimaginable without the wit and charm of EH Shepard's drawings, which is why the Disney travesty of Pooh is so offensive (what a fine critic the small girl was who declared after seeing the cartoon, "That's not true. The book's true"). As it happens, the very first Pooh story was originally illustrated by another artist, who depicted Christopher Robin as a lovable scamp, much like Richmal Crompton's William; if he had not been dropped, we would now experience the Pooh books quite differently.

The very best children's books are meant—at least in the first instance—for quite young children. Books targeted at older children or young adolescents can be pretty good, but they are seldom truly inspired. The most conspicuous exception is Treasure Island, which is in a class of its own.

The best children's books appeal to both children and adults, and—this is the crucial test—for the very same reasons. The Alice books have always appealed to eggheads. Alice and Humpty-Dumpty (now there's an egghead) debate the relationship of language to the world, the Cheshire Cat argues by syllogism, and when the White King congratulates Alice on being able to see Nobody at such a distance, the Encyclopedia of Philosophy points out that this is a hypostatisation of the null class. And yet Carroll's genius is that the child and the philosopher understand and enjoy the same jokes. When adults admire the prose of Beatrix Potter, the finest stylist of all children's writers, and the delicacy of her paintings, they are enjoying just what small children enjoy: the special tone of the words and the prettiness of the pictures. Ten-year-olds in the 1950s knew that the Molesworth books were both a riot and an acute portrait of the English educational system; and that is exactly what they seem to the adult reader today. But we have now become so knowing that it is hard for a writer to address both children and adults in the same voice. Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is a case in point: delightful though it is, one cannot quite help feeling that Sendak is going behind the children's backs to point out the Freudian references to the grown-ups. One of Rowling's merits is that she does not condescend to her readers, and writes as though she is doing what comes naturally to her. By contrast, I find Pullman, in many respects a far better writer than Rowling, a touch too self-conscious, too careful to collect the adults' applause.

This scatter of reflections may suggest that Rowling and Pullman, in their different ways, represent something new in children's literature: the grafting of grander ambition on to a more modest traditional form. In Rowling's case this seems to have come about by accident. She has declared that the Harry Potter books were intended from the start as a series of seven, and some people have therefore supposed that she has had a grand design right from the beginning. But this is unlikely. The success of the first books came from an idiosyncratic mix of school story, broad and even farcical comedy, whodunnit and a bit of adventure. By the third book she was starting to repeat herself (which her fans evidently do not mind), and in the fourth of the series she was obviously struggling. Her way out was to go for gigantism: the villain, originally a Hogwarts old boy who had gone to the bad, becomes a figure of universal evil (and even the special school game, quidditch, is turned into a universal sport, with a world cup competition). The joke public school setting simply does not fit this new conception, which is duller and more laboured in any case. If this was planned from the outset, it was poor planning indeed.

Pullman, on the other hand, clearly did have a conception of all three volumes of his trilogy when he began. He is a talented writer, with strong narrative and descriptive powers, and his first volume is excellent. It is set in a universe which is both like and unlike our own, and begins in an Oxford which both is and is not the actual Oxford. Pullman falters at times—when the small heroine, Lyra, runs away to join a merry band of gypsies, one feels that she has escaped from Oxford into the land of cliché—but the later parts of the book, set in Scandinavia, are admirably told, and the king of the armoured bears is perhaps Pullman's finest creation. In the second volume, his powers of invention seem to be under strain. The third volume culminates in a vast cosmic war, in which we witness the death of God; this book contains some splendid passages, but as a whole it is an indescribable muddle, an overloaded edifice that eventually collapses under its own weight.

The root of the problem is that Pullman has had metaphysical ambitions beyond his capacity. When interviewed, he has named Milton and Blake as his models, and the trilogy's title, His Dark Materials, is taken from Paradise Lost. That is rather too grand for a children's book, and what we get in the final volume is an unmanageable hybrid: the story of how a boy and girl braved the baddies and saved several universes. Pullman has also advertised an animus against Christianity and a particular antipathy to the Christian allegory of CS Lewis's Narnia (which seems ungenerous, in view of the amount that he owes to Lewis). But his anti-Christian polemic fails because he has rigged the rules of the game so that he is bound to win. Parts of his second volume are set in our own universe, in England at the present day, and there is not much scope for bashing the church in these. In the alternative universe the religious or quasi-religious authorities are indeed doing wicked things, but their wickedness is essentially unlike anything that the Catholic church has done in the real world. So Pullman is shying coconuts at an Aunt Sally of his own making.

However one reckons CS Lewis as a writer for children—and judgements vary widely—his intellectual underpinning is secure. He had The Pilgrim's Progress for a model, and his allegory is consistent and firm. By contrast, Pullman produces a confused mixture of science fiction (a lot of stuff about particle physics and computer screens in Oxford laboratories) with supernatural epic romance, and the two things do not fit. Even in its own terms, his "theology" does not cohere, for reasons that would not be very profitable to unravel. The much touted death of God is not really that at all: the Ancient of Days proves to be a feeble old man who does not seem to control anything very important. So vast a cosmic dislocation should surely produce comparably vast consequences, but what happens? Well, nothing much. Lyra goes back to her sort-of Oxford, and things are to some extent better than before, and that's it.

At the end, the plot is in trouble as well as the metaphysics. The protagonists, Lyra and her friend Will, grow emotionally ever closer, and we move towards the consummation of their love. But of course they are children, and so there can be no consummation. What we get instead is an embarrassed evasion. The finest children's books are wholly child-centred; the story goes awry here because adult ambitions have infiltrated. The story concludes with a bittersweet parting between the boy and the girl, but it feels like an attempt to cover over the weakness of the denouement with a pastel wash of pathos.

I have stressed Pullman's faults rather than his very considerable merits because he has been given such an easy ride by the critics. While Rowling has the more stupendous sales, Pullman is the highbrows' favourite. Even the Archbishop of Canterbury, turning the other cheek, has praised him. This is a curious phenomenon: it is odd that Pullman thinks he is Milton, but odder that everyone should believe him. Why has this happened? Perhaps the strange case of Tolkien may provide a clue. Tolkien began with The Hobbit, which is without ambiguity a children's book, and rather a good one—basically the plot of The Wind in the Willows toughened up. The Lord of the Rings, though, is an epic meant for adults, and Tolkien took it very seriously, but its hero is still a furry little Hobbit with a comic name. That was a deliberate decision, however puzzling it may be, but the work is also childlike in less intentional ways. In Middle Earth, Tolkien created an entire imaginary world, but lacking religion and essentially lacking sexual desire, it is a world which is less than fully adult. Though it was not designed as a work for adolescents, that is how it turned out.

To write anything even a little critical of Tolkien is to submit oneself to a deluge of letters and emails ranging from the earnest to the abusive; I speak from experience. What is disconcerting about many of Tolkien's fans is a lack of proportion; they seem unable to enjoy him without making inflated claims for him. There seems to be something in the well-loved literature of adolescence that can disable the critical faculty, and Pullman may have been the beneficiary of this. His work and Tolkien's may also meet a hunger for epic or spiritual themes left unsatisfied by the modern novel, while providing a rattling good story at the same time. If so, the triumph of His Dark Materials may tell us as much about the present time as Eagle tells us about England in the 1950s. Indeed, a popular children's book can be worth as much to the cultural historian as half a dozen sociological treatises. If you want to understand the spirit of an age, cherchez l'enfant.