The Silver Eel

"A gape-jawed serpentine shape of pale metal crested with soot hung high for a sign."

Friday, February 17, 2006


I went through what's become a familiar procession of emotions on hearing about and then reading the semi-recent recommendations for essential school-age books. Curiosity followed by interest, eagerness and finally irritation. I do sympathise with Nick Hornby's comment at the end of the Guardian piece. Motion's list is clearly political, and impractical, but he makes a necessary point. Pullman's list seems light, though I agree with what he says about Kipling; Rowling's isn't bad. For what it's worth, here's mine:

Winnie-the-Pooh/The House at Pooh Corner
The Wind in the Willows
The Jungle Books
Tales of Robin Hood [not the Roger Lancelyn Green version]
The Hill of the Red Fox
The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
The Lord of the Rings

I've cheated like mad, putting two books in as the first entry; also, The Jungle Books count as two, Earthsea counts as three; and it's maybe hard to read The Lord of the Rings without having first read The Hobbit. However, that's it squeezed down to ten entries and I really can't reduce it any further. I'm embarassed by the absence of female protagonists, save for Tenar in The Tombs of Atuan and Susan in Weirdstone, who doesn't count because she and Colin are personality-free.

The Weirdstone of Brisingamen is not Garner's best book, but The Owl Service gave me such difficulty as an adult before I licked it that I shy from recommending it. A child who has read Weirdstone may go on to try the rest of Garner - it's a first step, and in any case it's a terrific, frightening adventure story. The Lord of the Rings I now have many reservations about, though I read and re-read it obsessively from the age of about 12 to 15, but the strength of the narrative will carry a kid past the interminable descriptive paragraphs on flora. Indeed I think it's a book which is far easier to read as a child than as an adult. Also, its length is in its favour - once you've read that, size alone is likely to hold less fear.

I could happily have added Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Dr Seuss, The Eagle of the Ninth, Tales of King Arthur, The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Dark is Rising, the Narnia novels, and with great reluctance I have taken out a selection of Robert Westall novels (including Anne, female protag. of The Watch House). I notice that many of them are overtly or obliquely about the natural world, and that many are fantasies. In children's books that counts as a plus because they deal in archetypes, and that makes them imaginatively portable - they are capable of going in deep and forming a foundation for later reading. Doubtless other novels would do as well as these, but I can't vouch for them - these I know from experience, and can count on. We read I Am David and The Silver Sword at school, acknowledged classics and "serious" (i.e. about the war), but for some reason they never made much impression.

The list excludes the innumerable Hardy Boys, Three Investigators, Doctor Who novelisations and Willard Price adventures that I read as a kid. As Ursula Le Guin has said, children consume enormous amounts of garbage, and it is good for them - which is why I don't get too worked up any more about Harry Potter. (I was, I admit, genuinely delighted to see the real-life Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross recently.)

It also excludes stuff which I considered putting on because it was worthy and improving - the worst reasons. Hence no Animal Farm, The Outsider, Metamorphosis, A Man for All Seasons, Shakespeare, Wilfred Owen, Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov. These are not kids' books - they are pieces of literature which are fundamental, yes, simple, yes, capable of being read by children, yes, but they're the books you read after you've read the other stuff. At least, I did. Gore Vidal may have been reading Henry James at 13, and good for him, but it doesn't make it children's literature. Literature of this sort is geared towards an adult sensibility, and just because you can read it doesn't mean you'll grasp it, or that it will shape you. It may, but I can't see the hit-rate for Henry James being great for contemporary children.

The only exception to this rule is Davy, which I read once at 13 and didn't need to go near again, until I decided to check it out a few years ago, and found it to my joy as strong, strange, dirty and vital as it had been when I'd read it under the covers with a Durabeam torch and marvelled at all the fucking in it. It's about a boy's transition to manhood (and the sex is only part of it) on the road in a post-Apocalyptic, neo-rustic America, learning to apprehend the world and the cruelty and compassion and contradiction of it, written with tremendous inventiveness and humanity. I can't think of a better book with which to leave childhood.


At 24 February 2006 at 16:26 , Blogger James Long said...

I would have counted five for Earthsea. Why do you disregard Tehanu and The Other Wind - because they were written much later than the first three books in the series?

(Apologies - posted this comment on the wrong blog post first time 'round. Sorry to be messy on your blog, which looks very neat and beautiful. You have written some very interesting things.)

At 25 February 2006 at 00:53 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Ahah. Good question. Mostly a question of exposure: Tehanu hadn't been written when I was reading the Earthsea novels. I came to it as an adult (well, 22), and hated it because it was nothing like the first three. I re-read it a few years back, still found it flawed, still found the ending arbitrary, but thought the novel was strong, both as a stand-alone and as a piece of revisionist commentary. I also thought it was as good a piece of writing as Le Guin has ever done, and possibly her best.

However, there are good reasons for not considering it a children's novel: the end of the world is all in a day's work, but here we have a child burned almost to death by adults and abandoned; Tenar fearful and alone; Sparrowhawk forced to fight and kill practically with his bare hands in order to protect the homestead; armed gangs on the roads; the old certainties of authority and respect (for Ogion, for example) absent or overthrown or undermined. The King shows up, and what does Tenar think? - what a nice boy. All he can do is give her a lift in his boat, from what I recall. It's like Bosnia come to Gont. The horror is immediate and human, not taking place on the level of myth but on that of everyday experience, and all the controls have been lifted.

This may make for an excellent novel - as indeed it is in many ways - but it is fundamentally important to children's literature that while there may be dangers, they must be contained to a degree. As with childhood itself. In the early Potter novels, Dumbledore can always be relied on to sort things out if things come to a pinch - infinitely compassionate, and infinitely powerful, though I hear things change later on (I'm not a fan). The one thing you could rely on in the first three books was Sparrowhawk's power - in Tehanu, it's gone.

Thus, while there are significant differences in style and technique in the first three books, they do recognisably fit together. Tehanu, for all its merits, stands apart. The effect of the first three is to reassure, however equivocally, while the effect of Tehanu is to unsettle, when it isn't downright terrifying.

The structural weakness lies here: that in a book which is about the human practically all the way through, salvation comes from the supernatural, with precious little foreshadowing, and none of the rationale that was so carefully developed in the previous novels. What is weakened in Tehanu is comprehensively blown apart in The Other Wind. This was an attempt to tie up loose ends which should have been left to blow free, to explain anomalies which had never, frankly, bothered me that much either as child or adult. OK, the wall across the land of the dead was just there, as was the land of the dead itself (rather imperfectly explained as a kind of cosmic hoax at the of The Farthest Shore), but if it was the secret source of wizardry, you'd have though someone would have mentioned it in one of those long lectures when Ged was going through his schooling on Roke. Of course, it's Le Guin's prerogative to revisit, revise and reverse as she sees fit - it's her world, after all - but in this case I think her skill and talent simply weren't up to the job that ideology was demanding of them. It can be done, as Tehanu shows, but in this case it's a massive failure - too many switchbacks, not enough development, too many arbitrary explanations and events. As Robert Silverberg says, after you've built it, you have to hit it with a sledgehammer, and if you see it quiver then you have to take it down and build it again.

In short, no Tehanu because it's too potent, and no The Other Wind because it's pish.

Thanks for the praise. I wish I had something to do with the layout, but it's simply one of the Blogger templates. My ignorance of technical know-how is nearly absolute. Some of my friends are probably embarrassed on my behalf. Regarding the content, I'm glad you've enjoyed it.

At 25 February 2006 at 18:52 , Blogger James Long said...

Thanks for an interesting and clearly reasoned response.

Le Guin delivered a lecture on Tehanu and its divergence from the tone and mechanics of the earlier Earthsea trilogy - perhaps you are aware of it? The transcript of the lecture was published by Children's Literature New England (in association with Green Bay Publications) as Earthsea Revisioned - ISBN 0 948845 03 1

I don't think an author holds the final word on interpretation or assessment of a book, but it's interesting to read her point of view.

At 26 February 2006 at 20:52 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

Thanks for the tip. She's a very good essayist, from what I remember of The Language of the Night, and I note there's a worthwhile comment from her here:

At 8 March 2006 at 17:33 , Blogger Yvonne said...

I like your list and agree with your views about Tehanu, though I quite enjoyed The Other Wind. I agree that it stretched the Earthsea reality almost to breaking point though.

I also agree that it's mythical and archetypal books that we remember the most from childhood.

I disagree with telling children what to read, because if you tell them to read they'll probably dislike it on principle, but here goes anyway:

* Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling (children will be able to filter out the gung-ho for Empire bits)
* The Wind in the Willows
* Winnie the Pooh
* Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë
* Wide Sargasso Sea (must be read after Jane Eyre or it ruins both books)
* The Lord of the Rings
* A good collection of myths and legends
* British Folktales, Kevin Crossley-Holland
* Finn Family Moomintroll, Tove Jansson
* The Grapes of Wrath, JD Salinger (at about age 15/16)

It probably depends what age-group your list is aimed at.

At 19 March 2006 at 23:31 , Blogger The Silver Eel said...

A literary-minded friend has just read all the Earthseas for the first time and quite liked The Other Wind; so did my wife. I'll admit that part of my dislike of it is harrumphing at interference with a childhood icon - but on this occasion I genuinely thought that it wasn't that well done, that Le Guin hadn't made a good enough case within the story for the changes she was introducing, however necessary or logical they might be.

>I also agree that it's mythical and archetypal books that we remember the most from childhood.

I'd add a qualification here, just to ensure we don't address myth as being solely Greek, Norse, Celtic, etc, profound though these may be. Garner has a very neat definition of myth as being "the crystallisation of experience", and this can apply to any time or milieu. The likes of Kipling, Buchan and Rider Haggard can be taken to have formed a myth of empire, which was quite consciously pursued by Thesiger, and doubtless many others. It's still attractive today, though something of a museum-piece (disregarding the morality - or lack of it). So when I recommend Kidnapped and The Hill of the Red Fox, it's because they both appeal to and help to define a certain notion of what the Highlands are, or should be, one which operates at a semi-conscious level.

It should be acknowledged that a myth can be subscribed to without direct experience: how many Scots can grow misty-eyed about their wee bit hill and glen, who have never lived outside of a city? However, I'd imagine myth is strongest when grounded in the daily lived experience of the people who draw on it.

Also, thinking about the Greeks, at one time you might find any number of passing references or allusions to Greek myth in a novel or review or essay. The authors knew their audience would be familiar with the stories and recognise their relevance. How true would that be now? Granted, this is more a matter of cold intellect than being hooked in the gut, but even so...what myths are alive for the mass of the public today? What imaginative frame of reference do most people have?

>I disagree with telling children what to read, because if you tell them to read they'll probably dislike it on principle, but here goes anyway:

That was Nick Hornby's point, too.

>* Puck of Pook's Hill by Rudyard Kipling (children will be able to filter out the gung-ho for Empire bits)
* The Wind in the Willows

Interestingly, I just found out this is being marketed as a book for adults in France.

* Winnie the Pooh
* Jane Eyre Charlotte Brontë
* Wide Sargasso Sea (must be read after Jane Eyre or it ruins both books)
* The Lord of the Rings
* A good collection of myths and legends
* British Folktales, Kevin Crossley-Holland

Have read his The Norse Myths - vg.

* Finn Family Moomintroll, Tove Jansson
* The Grapes of Wrath, JD Salinger (at about age 15/16)

Er...Grapes of Wrath, or Catcher in the Rye? Incidentally, I haven't read either of them. [Winces] I know.

>It probably depends what age-group your list is aimed at.

Yeah. Though I didn't say so in my original post, I focussed on the word children. So, from beginning reading up to the age of, for me, 14, with perhaps a year either way. Basically until the point when you're ready to start tackling the adult books, with some emotional experience and maturity to back you up. Otherwise you'd be talking Orwell and Dickens and Steinbeck and the Brontes and, you know, there'd just never be any end to it. That was Motion's point, but I think he misread the brief - or it was too wide to begin with. What was it - before leaving school? I mean, I'll never get to the end of that list before I die.


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