Reading the course contents from my MA last week, I was rather shocked to discover that I come from a recognized problem area of society.
The focus for that week was on ‘socially committed writing’ and the materials introduced this topic by saying: ‘A feature of the later part of the twentieth-century was the increase in the number of children’s books which took a hard look at many of the problem areas of society, such as homelessness, single parent families, drug abuse and racial prejudice.’
I’ve never considered myself in this light before, though I remember very clearly growing up in the mid-80s through to the late nineties and people having very strong views about the evils of single-parent families. News stories would hint at the social disruption children like me were causing across the UK – as if we were a band of hard-hearted outlaws who left nothing but crime and unhappiness in our wake.
Still, it was rather shocking to read that single parent families can be classes as a problem area of society. I wanted more clarification on this assertion, but none was offered.
And, in fact, the only text we looked at that showed this particular family structure was Dear Nobody, by Berlie Doherty, which deals with the issues raised by another potential problem area of society – teenage pregnancy.
In this story, teenagers Chris and Helen think they are in love and their first physical encounter results in Helen falling pregnant. The book revolves around the way in which they and their families come to terms with this. Chris, the father, comes from a single-parent home and it is portrayed as a very warm, loving and stable environment. Thank you, Berlie, for showing that single parents and their offspring are not social pariahs.
So why has this type of family been singled out (pardon the pun) as a social problem? From what I remember in the 1980s (and my memory’s a little hazy in my fourth decade), we were viewed as rather a disturbed lot, prone to anger and antisocial behaviour, and were low achievers academically and vocationally, with an article in the Daily Telegraph, from relatively recently in 2008,stating: ‘Young people whose mother and father split up are also three times as likely to become aggressive or badly behaved, according to the comprehensive survey carried out by the Office for National Statistics.’ (You can read more about this here.)
The problem with statistics is that they are figures and not people. I won’t deny that they reflect elements of reality, of society, but they also risk turning people who might otherwise break the trend into discouraged accepters of an unhelpful stereotype. I was lucky – I was encouraged to be successful, to study hard, to never be a victim. I’m not blowing my own trumpet (well, I am not trying to at least) but even though my mother and I struggled to pay the bills (working two jobs each as well as studying and working), I got a place at Oxford, and neither of us has ever been unemployed and a burden to the taxpayer. Nowadays, I don’t think that single-parent families are considered as quite as dangerous to society as they used to be because the traditional family structure has changed so much in a relatively short space of time.
Turning to children’s literature, I wanted to see how it reflected what was happening in society. And not in the sort of books that (apologies for my frustration here), talk rather patronizingly to parents and children about ‘hey, it’s OK not to have your mummy/daddy living at home with you’. No, I wanted to look at books where single-parent families just were – with no excuses and no apologies.
It was quite hard to come up with loads of books where this was the case. Granted, plenty of books have orphans and half-orphans, but it seems as if a parent dying is acceptable and less likely to turn you into a social monster than divorce, for example. What I did find were the following:
Walk Two Moons, by Sharon Creech: I really loved reading this book, filled as it was with tenderness and respect for the central character, Salamanca Tree, who embarks on a journey to find her mother, who left her and her father. There is no indication here that Salamanca is nothing but an intelligent and well balanced child. Yes, she does yearn to find her mother and discover why she left, but she’s not filled with existential angst or boiling rage at life.
Pippi Longstocking, by Astrid Lindgren: OK, this is a little farfetched, as Pippi doesn’t actually live with a parent (she sets up home on her own with her monkey and her horse after her father is presumed lost at sea, and her mother is dead). However, what Lindgren does so well is take a potshot at po-faced societal expectations that all happy children must live either with a family or in a children’s home in order to grow up into successful and obedient human beings. Pippi can defend herself, with hilarious humour, against attempts to force her into conformity. Sure, she’s a little wild but she’s also brave, generous and kind-hearted and the reader cannot stop rooting for her.
Madame Doubtfire, by Anne Fine: This story is tragicomic, really. It made uncomfortable reading for Holly and me but not because the children were maladapted – it was the dreadful behaviour of the adults that made us squirm. In fact, the children were much more well adjusted than the parents and our hearts broke for their pain at how the parents behaved. But at least this shows that children can remain true to themselves and brave even in the face of parental weakness.
I found other examples of children who were brave, likeable and successful but these tended to come from families where one parent had died rather than separation or divorce.
So I leave you with this question: Can you recommend good books about children from single-parent families? Is the death of a parent more acceptable than divorce or separation in children’s lit?
This week my MA course is asking the question: ‘Whatever happened to the school story?’
The purpose of this is to examine how popular books such as those written by Enid Blyton (Malory Towers, St Clare’s) and Elinor Brent-Dyer (Chalet School) have evolved and whether the genre has declined or changed by modern children’s authors. The books we considered were The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler by Gene Kemp, Malarkey by Keith Gray, HarryPotter and the Philosopher’s Stone by JK Rowling and school series by authors such as Enid Blyton.
Image courtesy of firstnews.co.uk
The heyday of school stories
Many people of my age or older will remember (fondly or not) Enid Blyton’s popular school series: Malory Towers and St Clare’s. You probably would have preferred one over the other (for me, it was Malory Towers, for Holly – St Clare’s). The structure was pretty formulaic – the main character(s) are generally good sorts, but have the odd compulsory fault or two (eg Daryl Rivers’ bad temper, and the twins Isobel’s and Pat’s initial aloofness). While at boarding school, they become chums with similar girls, have midnight feasts, play jokes on unsuspecting French teachers, and try to take a boastful or overly posh peer down a peg or two. There are occasionally mini-dramas, but nothing too appalling or unsettling. Vanity and laziness are criticized, and academic persistence and sportiness are applauded. Even though these girls are from families with some wealth, they are not overly rich, and those who come from very wealthy backgrounds are often portrayed negatively (especially if they are only children). There is a great emphasis on not getting above oneself – modesty is encouraged, though occasionally the girls become rather condemnatory and self-righteous which to modern audiences might seem either humorous or irritating.
So what happened to this particular brand of storytelling?
Even in the early part of the twentieth century, the percentage of children attending boarding schools was pretty low. The fact that these stories didn’t represent the reality of most children in the country might have had an effect on this genre becoming less popular, but it’s debatable since children nowadays still get a lot from these books, and not only are they from a different educational background, they are also very different to the children of 60+ years ago.
So let’s look at the authors. Apparently, those who might have gone or did go to boarding schools a few decades ago (at least) probably didn’t have that great a time as the gals at St Clare’s and Malory Towers. Instead they might have preferred to write about different experiences and not romanticize a situation that held little fun or comfort for them.
And perhaps it’s just the way the literary ball rolls. Trends, and all that. Books, like television programmes, have become ‘grittier’ and more concerned with portraying social conditions and societal issues such as gender, race, sexuality. This has resulted in the sort of books that we looked at this week.
I am going to show my age and reading preferences here when I state that I really don’t like school stories nowadays. I reviewed The Turbulent Term of Tyke Tiler last June in advance of this module (you can read it here).
image courtesy of Wikimedia.org
The book won the Carnegie Medal and is lauded for challenging gender stereotyping through its main protagonists (I can’t say too much as the very last page is a massive ‘reveal’). But while it is perhaps more playful than other books in this genre I just didn’t feel it was a satisfying read. It sort of potters along in a series of trivial events and then ends. There is one element to the plot that hints at tension but even this is not incredibly nail-biting. There is not much sense of fun and most of the action takes place outside of the school which really begs the question: should this be considered a school story at all?
The next book was Malarkey by Keith Gray.
image courtesy of scottishbooktrust.com
This book is aimed more at teenagers, I would argue, rather than Blyton’s pre-teen books. The subject matter makes this an older read; newcomer John Malarkey is accused of a theft he didn’t commit within a few hours of starting at a new school. He is framed for the crime by a violent and frightening gang and the teachers seems disinterested in hearing his side of the story. The story focuses on the unpleasant realities of blackmail and bullying and is as far from playing an innocent trick on Mademoiselle as you can get.
I just don’t think you can compare this book to post-war boarding school tales. It reads rather like an episode of Eastenders – with drama and tension and shedloads of social commentary. I came away from this drained and depressed and thinking that comprehensive schools are horrible places for any child to be in (and I went to a pretty rough one myself – things have obviously become far worse since the 1980s). There is a place for gritty realism, and perhaps a teenage audience would enjoy the frenetic pace of this book but this can’t be compared in the same light as school stories intended for children in primary schools. Unless you want to traumatise them beyond belief. I won’t be sharing this book with Holly any time soon.
Welcome back, old favourite
The nearest modern book that approaches the heyday of the school story is JK Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone – and the rest of the series, come to that. It reverts to placing the action mostly in the school setting, rather than using school as a catalyst for events that unfurl away from its boundaries. The children are looked after by surrogate parents (wizards and witches) and have a fairly typical school experience (barring battles with Voldemort and his cronies). Not a lot of attention is paid to lessons as no one picks up a school story to read pupils’ reactions to particle physics (or in Harry Potter, a detailed description of the Dark Arts), but instead adventures, allegiances and rivalries form in the corridors of this magical kingdom and a sense of community and peer support permeates the pages (with a few exceptions of course). The cleverness of these books is that the early ones can be read and enjoyed by primary-school pupils while the later books are suitable for teens and adults. Rarely has a children’s book had such universal appeal.
Image courtesy of Wikimedia.org
So, where does this fascination for the world of Hogwarts come from? Our course materials point out that adult readers might enjoy the books so much because they hark back to their childhood days spent reading, you guessed it, series like Malory Towers. These books don’t give two figs about realism and grittiness and social issues, although the snobbery about Muggles by wizardry families could be seen as having a parallel in social snobbery between the classes.
Critics who have examined the books have accused Rowling of failing to deal with modern concerns such as gender and sexual equality, demanding to know why there are no positive representations of homosexual relationships within the books and why she chose a male hero over a female equivalent. This, they say, is gender stereotyping: does she not believe a female could have overcome the wicked Voldemort? I posed this question to Holly whose eyes nearly rolled back into the recesses of her head. The name that immediately came from her mouth was ‘Hermione’. I suggested that if Rowling wanted to empower females she could have made Hermione the hero, and was she sexist for not doing so? ‘No,’ was the very firm reply. Without Hermione, Harry could not have achieved as much as he did. She was a great character. I pointed out that she needed rescuing by Harry and Ron from an ogre in the first book and she replied, ‘Well, like, wouldn’t you need help defeating an ogre if you were by yourself? Duh!’ (She’s getting into teen-speak at the moment.)
It is a valid question why Rowling didn’t use a girl instead of a boy for the hero. It would have made a huge difference, as JK Rowling admitted in a webchat a little while back:
Denise— London: If Harry Potter was a girl, do you think his adventures would have been different?
J. K. Rowling replies -> Yes, I do think they would be different. I imagined Harry as a boy from the start, so I’ve never thought about ‘Harriet Potter’, but I’m sure lots of things in the books would change, Ron for a start, he’d have to be Ronalda.
No one can say why Rowling chose a boy to play the heroic role in her series – and it sounds like the author herself just always ‘knew’ that he would be so. One could argue that perhaps she was affected by tradition, where the boy was the hero, or perhaps she wanted to write in the opposite gender to herself to avoid over-identification with the main character. I know writers who make this active decision.
It depends how you rate a book. As adults we adopt different criteria to children: Is the book worthy? Does it challenge stereotypes? Does it help children understand and accept diversity?
Children I think read for different reasons. They want to be challenged, entertained, kept on the edge of their seats. Plot is everything for a young child, and characterization can afford to be sparse. They want to know what happened next. And often characterization can be driven through a protagonist’s actions and speech. A page detailing the inner monologue of a pre-teen is not going to fascinate a pre-teen.
I think adults mediating the world of children’s literature need to tread carefully. It is important to enable children to become aware of issues, but we must also keep space for books that exist to delight, to entertain, to engage. Moral posturing will do nothing to raise awareness or create socially committed children. As seen in the massive success of Harry Potter, you don’t need the nitty gritty of realism to speak to millions of children.
What are your favourite school stories? Do you like books that have a moral message or that actively seek to portray diversity in modern society?
I am a little pressed for time this week for a post, but thought I would put up a recent ‘presentation’ I gave on Robert Westall – one of my favourite writers at the moment – for my MA course. Westall was famous for three recurring motifs in his work: war, cats and motorbikes, apparently. I am familiar with the first two, but less so with the third.
I will aim to put some reviews up soon of this books but perhaps this might be of interest. It’s all about how war is portrayed in young adult fiction and questions whether bad language and violence is necessary to be realistic. I’d love to hear your thoughts on it!
MA Presentation: Robert Westall
For this week’s presentation I will be discussing Robert Westall’s The Machine Gunners and Gulf and comparing them to Barbara Mitchelhill’s Run Rabbit Run, with particular reference to how violence is portrayed in books with wartime settings, and any authorial didacticism that can be detected within.
The Machine Gunners may be one of Robert Westall’s most lauded and popular books but it is also arguably his most controversial. Focusing on the clandestine activities of a group of children during World War II, it never shirks from portraying the situation with brutal honesty, bad language, violence and all, as Peter Hollindale asserts: ‘[Westall] held invincibly to his belief that the truth should not be ideologically pasteurised for children…’
The children living in fictional Garmouth (Tynemouth) in the Blitz are so used to bombings and death that their casual attitude towards the war might seem shocking to a modern reader. Emerging from air-raid shelters in the morning people look at how many milk bottles are left on the cart because ‘…Every extra bottle meant some family bombed-out during the night.’ (1) This image shows that the children are living in a very unnatural and almost surreal situation; on the one hand, there is the ‘same whistling milkman, same cart-horse…’ (ibid), and on the other, proof that those bottles will no longer be required by the deceased. Equally bizarrely, the war provides children with exciting play opportunities. They compete with one another by collecting war souvenirs, and this provides the inciting incident of the novel: the discovery and acquisition of the machine gun from the German fighter plane which leads Chas and his gang to build their own fortress in preparation for the invading enemy.
Westall defended his portrayal of violence in this book by saying that children ‘…found the war fun; the best game anybody ever invented, unless you or somebody near and dear got killed.’ (Children of the Blitz: 12) It is perhaps their way of making sense of a situation that was too terrifying to contemplate with any degree of realism – even in Westall’s later novel The Kingdom by the Sea, Harry is frightened by the emotions that threaten to overcome him when he thinks his family have perished in an air-raid, ‘…he felt like a bomb himself, and if anyone did anything to him, he would explode into a million pieces and nobody would ever be able to put him back together again’ (16).
The violence of war inevitably is reflected in the children’s behaviour, and this is most powerfully seen and felt in the fight scene between Chas and Boddser. Chas’s conscience knows that his idea for beating Boddser is appalling ‘It set him aghast’ (70) but he has grown up in an environment in which the reality is ‘…maim or be maimed.’ (ibid). The extreme brutality in the scene is shocking and has driven the criticism levelled at the book by its detractors, but Westall has said that his purpose here was ‘to address it from the pacifist angle…’, arguing that the fact that Chas is shunned by all his friends and family is proof that violence is undesirable. In the course notes, Pat Pinsent expresses uncertainty that he achieves his goal here, saying it is ‘…unlikely that the average reader, adult or child, is left with the kind of sense of defeat which his remarks might suggest.’
What I feel comes across more poignantly from this situation is the hypocrisy in people’s attitudes towards violence. Chas is caned by the headmaster, who uses violence to punish violence, and who also doesn’t condemn Chas’s decision to fight, per se, just how he does it: ‘Britishers do not use weapons, they fight only with their fists’, a sentiment echoed by Chas’s father. The implication here is that it would have been acceptable had Chas beaten Boddser to a pulp with his fists rather than his gas mask. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that the children acquire a fluid and somewhat confused attitude towards violence, as seen in how they react to Chas after the fight, ‘The class treated him with awe-struck and horrified silence. It was their opinion that Boddser had asked for it, but Chas shouldn’t have done it.’ (ibid)
This internal conflict could be seen as coming from what Virginia Walter describes as the children’s faulty socialisation. In a paper based on Robert Westall’s wartime novels, she compares the characters’ actions to Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann’s work ‘The Social Construction of Reality’. This explains that every person’s experience of everyday reality comes from their human relationships with others, and that socialisation is how we become part of that reality, with adults being the main conduits for children. Walters says that ‘Childhood is a particularly salient period for acquiring the understanding of what it means to be a member of a particular society,’ but warns that normal societal rules change during war time. This leaves children in a quandary about how they should behave when the boundaries keep changing. Cynical Clogger sums this up well when, in response to the statement that ‘Adults know best,’ (101) replies, ‘They dae what’s best for grown-ups,’ (ibid)
It is somewhat ironic – but surely not accidental – that the adult Westall chooses to express the novel’s antiwar message is Rudi, the captured Nazi gunner. Quickly, Rudi becomes part of their alternative family in the camp, as they realise that ‘He really looked like somebody’s dad; a bit fed up and tired’ (130). The children, particularly Nicky, who at one point calls him ‘Dad’, treat him more as one of them than they do their own parents and sing German Army songs with him, leading Rudi to question, ‘Who was on whose side? Had the children no loyalty to the British? Had he any loyalty left to the Germans?’ (146) Westall decriminalises him both in their eyes and in the reader’s, and calls into question how stable loyalty to one’s country is when you get to know your enemy, ‘His patriotism towards the Fatherland was dead’ (156). While Westall never openly condemns war in The Machine Gunners, he does at least provide opportunities for readers to question the nature of violence and what, if anything, it achieves.
In Gulf, Westall’s antiwar message is delivered much more didactically in what Virginia Walters describes as his ‘…most political novel and … written with an urgent anti-war message’.
Gulf was written later in his career, which could explain the change in narrative intent to a certain degree, but perhaps more relevant is the fact that the Gulf War was very different in nature to the Second World War. The latter had a direct and tangible impact on the British, who were, at home and abroad, defending their country against invasion. However, the distant nature of the Gulf War, which was only really understood by the general public via media reports, is a very different experience of conflict, and one in which it was easy to view almost as entertainment. Hollindale sums it up well when he says the novel was ‘…written out of anger at the nonstop televisual entertainment and deceptive propagandist images of the Gulf War… It shows with unforgettable power the victimisation, by inhuman processes on both sides of the conflict, of a boy soldier in the Iraqi army.’
While Westall frames the narrative through the first person voice of Tom, he uses elements of fantasy to bring to life the horrors of modern-day warfare. From the moment of his birth we are aware that Andy’s / Figgis’s purpose is to fulfill other people’s needs. Tom’s desperation for a brother drives him to create an imaginary friend called Figgis, and when Andy is born, he steps straight into those shoes, even taking on the name. Before long, he is saving injured animals, identifying telepathically with starving Ethiopians and then becoming inextricably linked with a young Iraqi soldier, Latif, at the start of the Gulf War.
Figgis’ metamorphosis into Latif helps Tom see the war in a new light, and he tells Tom that he thinks this was his purpose all along, ‘…I’m meant to be here, to see it all. To make up for all those who’re watching on the TV as if it was a soap…’ (83). Tom admits that his brother’s telepathy is helping him to see ‘…things differently…’ (79). Instead of cheering on Stormin Norman’s troops on the television, like his father, Tom starts to see the murderous Saddam Hussein in a more mundane light, ‘He looked human, like a used-car dealer…’ (ibid). Equally, the supposedly heroic Allied forces become more sinister to him, ‘with their cropped hair and still, expressionless faces… The humble monks of death’ (ibid), who fight not ‘for pride or rage or hate. For oil’ (ibid). Tom is seeing behind the jingoistic media images that have created a monstrous Middle Eastern despot out of a wicked but unremarkable man, while the supposed saviours are actually clinical and unemotional individuals who kill Iraqis in their thousands, as Figgis/Latif, declares, ‘They are all in pieces; arms, legs, heads still inside steel helmets. Hands. How can they bury them, if they are all in pieces… hundreds of them? Thousands… How are they going to bury them?’ (87).
When Figgis recovers and becomes Andy, there is no evidence of the suffering he endured, ‘…he’s normal with knobs on’ (93), which Tom can only see as a bad thing, ‘…nobody seems to give a damn about anything outside our house anymore… Figgis was our conscience’ (94-95). It could be argued that the death of Figgis is a metaphor for the death of society’s conscience when faced with distant wars and conflicts. However, there is hope in Tom, whom Figgis begs to keep the memory alive, ‘Tell people what it was like. I want people to know what it was like. Latif and Akbar are people too…’ (84)
While these two novels by Robert Westall raise various questions about the acceptability of war and violence to varying degrees and success, Barbara Mitchelhill’s relatively recent (2011) book Run Rabbit Run deals with the reality of being a conscientious objector in the Second World War.
Mitchelhill tells the tale through Lizzie, whose father has been ordered to either go to war to fight or go to prison. Despite the fact that Lizzie’s mother has been killed in a German air strike, her father refuses to become a soldier or create weapons or materials that could be used to kill – a decision that even his youngest son Freddie doesn’t quite understand:
‘“They dropped that bomb on Mum, didn’t they? … That’s only fair…”
Dad shook his head. “But that would make me just like the people who killed her, wouldn’t it? If we all refused to fight there wouldn’t be a war at all.’” (16)
The first-person narration helps the reader to quickly engage and identify with the family’s situation, as they flee from Rochdale to avoid capture by the police. However, while The Machine Gunners invites readers to consider their stance on violence and war (and perhaps realise that they might have different opinions depending on the circumstances), Mitchelhill leaves the reader in no doubt as to the message she wishes to convey in Run Rabbit Run: that there is no shame or cowardice in conscientious objectors. This is seen in the first two-thirds of the story, where the family move first from the family home in Rochdale to a commune of asylum seekers in Whiteway (an actual commune in the Cotswolds), then to a farm to work in exchange for food and board, before the father finally gives himself up to police when Freddie becomes seriously ill.
In each of these situations, Mitchelhill constructs situations where the father can explain the idea of pacifism:
‘I told them… I didn’t believe in war and that I wouldn’t go killing anybody. War is bad, that’s what I said. There was no good to be gained from fighting wars’ (9)
‘These men in Parliament don’t care how many people die. The just want power…’ (87)
Responses from sympathetic supporters are typically encouraging:
‘“You’re doing the right thing. Remember all those lads killed in the first war? … Wives and mothers grieving? And for what?’ (18)
‘“Well,” said Kitty, “if it were up to me everybody would refuse to fight. Where does all that fighting and killing get you? That’s what I want to know.’” (85)
When criticism is expressed, it typically comes from unlikeable characters such as the dreaded aunt, ‘If you can’t behave like a man and fight, then you’re no brother of mine and I’ll not have anything to do with you ever again. Our mother would be ashamed of you’ (11).
While it is helpful to introduce children to conscientious objectors and their place in war, Mitchelhill overeggs the point, to the extent that the narrative feels like a vehicle for ensuring the reader is on side. Only when the father is imprisoned and the children are sent to Wales does Mitchelhill finally free herself of her obligation to support pacifism and move into a ‘proper’ war story. At this point the children are free of their parent and able to enter their own adventure (remarkably similar at one point to Carrie’s War), which includes becoming part of a – luckily – loving and supportive adoptive family who help them trace their father’s whereabouts.
Towards the end of the book, the children run away to find their father, who has been sent to work in a Shropshire coal mine. They arrive to discover there has been an accident in the mine that very day, and their father is alive but he won’t leave his injured friend to escape to safety. Eventually they are rescued but Lizzie’s father is injured seriously enough to exempt him from the threat of serving in the Army again. At this point, Lizzie declares, ‘I felt really proud of him … our father was a hero’ (214). This jars against the previous messages about pacifism – in effect Lizzie is proud because he did not run away to save himself and even if she accepts his stance on conscientious objecting, there is a sense of relief that he has redeemed himself in the eyes of others.
The ending unfortunately also feels a little too didactic and summative, as Lizzie muses, ‘I sometimes wonder about the war and who is brave and who is a coward. I think you have to be brave to stand up for what you believe in. It’s not only soldiers who are the brave ones. The people they leave behind have to be brave too…’ (222). While this is a valid statement, it stands out rather starkly in a work of fiction.
In conclusion, I feel that all these books have didactic messages but the way in which they are conveyed are different. In The Machine Gunners, Westall’s primary concern is to faithfully and truthfully portray the reality of a community affected by war, with constant threats of death, fear and uncertainty. This arguably excuses their ‘kill or be killed’ mentality, though Westall also reflects on the futility of war, especially in the children’s interaction with Rudi. In Gulf, Westall’s didactic aim is more obvious through Tom’s first-person narration and the very negative depictions of how war is portrayed by the media and how eagerly the public lap up the images from the safety of their living rooms. Finally, in Run Rabbit Run Mitchelhill gives a sympathetic portrayal of pacifism during a time when fighting for your country was the honourable thing to do, yet whose message is slightly weakened by an overemphasis on reasons which start to sound unfavourably like excuses.
Over to you!
Do you think that violence and bad language are necessary for a truthful and realistic portrayal of war? Or should writers tone down or ‘pasteurise’ their narrative for younger audiences?
One of the texts we looked at last week as an introduction to our MA module on British Children’s Literature, 1960s to the current day, was Rosemary Sutcliff’s The Lantern Bearers (although this was written in 1959). I thought I would add a few observations about the book as a kind of review and a summary of what I think I learned about it this week!
Image courtesy of goodreads.com
What it’s about:
This is the third in a series of historical books about Britain under the Roman empire, often referred to as the ‘Marcus’ or ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’ series, the first of which was recently made into a film called ‘The Eagle’.
The Lantern Bearers is set during the fifth century, as Roman troops completed their withdrawal from Britain during increased Saxon attacks on the island. The novel’s hero is Aquila, a young Roman soldier who, after being asked to leave England and return to Rome with his troops, abandons his regiment to return to his family in England and help protect them against the Saxon invaders. However, after shortly after returning home, his family home is ransacked by Saxon marauders, his father, dogs, and servants are murdered and his sister is carried away, screaming. Aquila is beaten and left for dead, tied to a tree, until more invaders discover him and bring him home to serve as a slave in Ullasfjord.
After three years of servitude, the Saxons he is in thrall to return to Britain to live after disastrous harvests. Shortly after arriving, Aquila plans his escape and is aided by none other than Flavia. He begs her to join him but she refuses, saying she has a son and husband now and her place is with them. Aquila flees but with a heavy heart, carrying bitterness and rage as he vows to avenge his family alongside the Prince of Britain, Ambrosius Aurelianius. He is not only furious with the Saxons, he is also bitter towards his sister, whom he thinks has committed the ultimate betrayal. The book then focuses on how Ambrosius’ Roman sympathisers forge allegiances with the Celts to overcome Saxons but is mainly an intimate portrayal of one man’s struggle to come to terms not only with the new order in the country but also with his own demons.
The book won the Carnegie Medal from the Library Association, which recognizes the year’s best children’s book by a British writer.
When I first started reading The Lantern Bearers I admit I struggled – I found the language rather stodgy to begin with. However, I soon started appreciating the book for its incredibly poetic narrative – Aquila’s love for his land shines through Sutcliff’s beautiful natural descriptions – and the depth with which Sutcliff portrays Aquila’s struggles. It’s not just about who wins on the battlefields – enough proof is given to show that victories are short-lived and allegiances even more tenuous.
What astounded me about the book is Sutcliff’s ability to convincingly portray the psychological anguish of a male protagonist, and a Roman one at that. She makes him a believable and rich person and it is hard not to take on his pain as your own as you read.
Our course materials suggest that ‘Sutcliff constantly uses the past as a safely distanced environment in which to explore her concerns about the present time’ (Pinsent). I didn’t necessarily get this when I read the book and only could draw parallels when I read in the course materials about the issues affecting authors of this time, a large one being the decline of the British Empire. Apparently the book can be seen as mirroring the experience of British colonialists, especially in countries such as Kenya, where they were torn between staying behind as Britain withdrew or returning home to what would seem like a strange culture.
Another big theme running through the book, which I could see more clearly, is that of the tensions in familial relationships. What is interesting is that while Aquila has a good and solid traditional relationship with his father, built on mutual respect and admiration, his son Flavian turns into something of a rebel. He chooses to ignore his father’s wishes for him to remain with his group of soldiers during a major battle and rides off with a younger soldier he admires more. This is teenage rebellion in Roman times and the awkwardness between father and son is gently and non-judgementally portrayed as Aquila wishes for a closer relationship, suspecting his taciturn nature and bitterness as a cause for their estrangement. Their difficult conversations and the scowls Flavian shoots at his father can be found in any age, one imagine, but certainly have been featured more heavily in more modern books.
Our materials state that there is a ‘good deal of contrast between the situation of Aquila and his sister Flavia’ but I am not entirely in agreement with this. What we witness mainly are Aquila’s anger and hurt towards Flavia for choosing her Saxon husband and son over her Roman brother, particularly in light of how she was captured and forced into marriage, and one would assume she would be desperate to escape this predicament. Instead she simply says that her husband is her husband and she feels bound to him.
Aquila cannot grasp this until his wife, Ness, refuses to leave him to live again with her people when they abandon Ambrosius’ cause. There is no love lost between Aquila and Ness – they were both thrown into the marriage to prove allegiance between her father and Ambrosius – but she declares herself true to Aquila because of their son Flavian. Slowly, Aquila starts to realize that his sister’s decision was not one of betrayal of her old family but of being tied to her new one. When he rescues her son – his half-Saxon nephew – from almost certain death, his bitterness dissipates and he finds the peace that has eluded him for so long.
Since all this is shown through the eyes of Aquila and not much space is given to the women’s predicament, one cannot really say that equal treatment is given to Aquila’s and Flavia’s situations. This is not a criticism – this is, after all, Aquila’s story – but I think there’s not enough to support any claims of equal balance between the two.
Slaves and servitude
The main message (or was it a feeling?) that I got from reading The Lantern Bearers was that everyone was in thrall to someone else – even the leaders of the warring sides:
Aquila was literally in thrall to his Saxon captors for three years
Flavia is in thrall to her Saxon husband
Ness is in thrall to Aquila to seal her father’s commitment to Ambrosius’ cause
Ambrosius is in thrall to his father’s reputation and legacy in trying to keep Britain in the hands of the Romans instead of falling victim to the Saxons.
Being a slave isn’t just about being captured and forced to work for another. It’s about being tied to an emotion, as Aquila is in his bitterness, about being dependent upon the fluctuating loyalties of others, as Ambrosius is, about knowing your place and not being able to physically escape it, as are Ness and Flavia, who cannot shake the shackles of servitude off as Aquila is when given the chance. It’s how these characters deal with their situation that makes this book so fascinating and gripping and makes it more than a simple war story.
Fred Inglis said in his notes to the 1976 edition, ‘Aquila is much less confident, much more morally adrift than the earlier heroes…’ (pp 171-172). He is a hero in many more ways than brandishing a sword and cutting down the enemy; he is flawed but sympathetic and certainly not one-dimensional. I take my hat off to Sutcliffe for creating such depth, warmth and sadness in such a great, male character.
Have you read any books by Rosemary Sutcliff? What are your favourites? What do you think of her characterization?