Monday, December 17, 2012
This week’s posting of Reid’s Reader is the last for 2012. We are taking a Christmas break. The next posting will appear on Monday 14 January 2013.
“THE AUCKLAND UNIVERSITY PRESS ANTHOLOGY OF NEW ZEALAND LITERATURE” edited by Jane Stafford and Mark Williams (Auckland University Press, $NZ75)
It is my proud boast as a reviewer that I do not review books without first reading them from cover to cover. I know this may sound a dead obvious thing to say but – without getting too snarky or quoting review-and-verse – I know that it is not a boast that all reviewers can make, and especially not reviewers in our newspapers. There, I have more than once encountered “reviews” written by people who have clearly not got beyond the given book’s blurb.
Having made this pompous statement, I now have to admit clearly that while I have examined The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature closely and carefully, I have not literally read it from cover to cover.
I have two excuses.
The first excuse is that a capacious anthology of New Zealand’s English-language literature inevitably contains much that I have already read, and in the three weeks that I mulled over this volume, I simply noted the presence of many things I knew well or had read previously, and moved on. (The volume also contains much that I had never met before, and that duly impressed or surprised me.)
The second excuse is that I do not think this book is designed to be read in sequence and page by page. It is designed more for reference.
So what sort of beast is The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature?
It is a hard-back volume 1162 pages in length. It is therefore a heavy volume that will likely sit on the shelf as a work for occasional and studious reference, rather than be dandled familiarly on the reader’s knee or snuggled up to as a bedside book. I suspect that it will live mainly in libraries and academic institutions.
The blurb on the back of the dust-cover declares that it will “for years to come… be our guide to what’s worth reading – and why.”
“Oh hubris of the blurb-writer!” I at once think, and line up a number of arguments against this proposition.
But before I start getting censorious, I think it’s fair to consider how the husband-and-wife editors, Jane Stafford and Mark Williams of Victoria University of Wellington, see their work.
With admirable clarity, they set out the underlying principles in their Introduction. They write at length of attempts to “create” New Zealand in literary terms. Referring especially to Allen Curnow’s influential 1945 and 1960 anthologies of New Zealand poetry, they note:
“The nationalist story of moving away from a shameful Englishness towards a gratifyingly independent New Zealandness is one that has become firmly fixed in our sense of our own history. Curnow is the most authoritative instance of this effort of literary renovation…” (Pg.3)
This leads Stafford and Williams to re-state things they suggested in their seminal book Maoriland: New Zealand Literature 1872-1914 (2006). They react against the “nationalist” myth that New Zealand literature of merit was first invented in 1930s. When they refer to Quentin Pope’s 1929 anthology Kowhai Gold as having been “perhaps excessively” despised by later critics, they are acknowledging that interesting things were being anthologised before the generation of Fairburn, Curnow, Sargeson and Glover got to work. Hence at least part of this anthology’s aim is to recover what was estimable in New Zealand’s Pakeha “settlement” and “colonial” periods.
In broadly chronological fashion, the anthology is divided into eleven sections, taking us from first contact of Maori and Pakeha to the present day. It is “a history of literature in English in this country since contact” (Pg.15). It is admirable that the editors include much that would now be regarded as ideologically unacceptable, or somehow dodgy in terms of attitudes (including one of “Hori’s” patronising “humour” columns from the old Auckland Star.) They are aware that all writers live in an historical context, and no context (including the present) makes assumptions or expresses attitudes that are definitive and unassailable. Thus they say:
“This anthology is not intended to congratulate New Zealanders in the twenty-first century on having arrived at last at an authentic identity as a people. We have resisted the narrative in which Kiwis as tolerant and open postcolonial citizens look back in horror at their racist and sexist past.” (Pg.11)
Amen and bravo to that.
Yet I am bound to mention that well over two-thirds of this anthology consists of things written since the Second World War (post-war sections begin on Page 384). Indeed, nearly three-quarters consists of things written since the 1930s. Perhaps there is still something to be said for the literary myth of the 1930s, after all? The 1930s did seem to kick-start something.
The editors note inevitably how New Zealand’s writing community has changed in the last 60-odd years. Though no writing in the Maori language is included, the anthology accommodates the huge impact of the Maori Renaissance. Women now make up a greater proportion of published New Zealand writers than before, and Pacific and other ethnic communities are now part of the literary scene. The contents acknowledge these facts. Stafford and Williams also make the excellent point that a great part of New Zealand literature has always been, and continues to be, produced by people who are not part of a bicultural or multicultural dialogue; but who are in effect outsiders, largely drawing on world literature generated outside New Zealand.
In sum, this is an inclusive anthology whose perspective is mainly historical and contextual.
But there is a big problem with this approach. Are things included because they are of literary merit (however that may be defined) or because they are representative of their age? Is this primarily an anthology for historians and sociologists looking for illustrative literary texts? Or is it for critics and general readers seeking a selection of what is aesthetically “best” in New Zealand writing? The editors go for the historical view, saying “our purpose is not to present a canonical view of New Zealand literature. Rather we seek to register the work in its time, allowing for the different ways in which it has been seen.” (Pg.16) They have already remarked that “in this anthology we have mixed the canonical and the popular” (Pg.4) Oh dear! This does create problems. It’s one thing to mix the intellectual and highbrow with the demotic and populist - Charles Brasch with Barry Crump, let’s say. But one then wonders what good writing has been excluded to make nods to the populist stuff.
Okay. That’s enough on the anthology’s theoretical underpinnings. What of the contents themselves?
The Auckland University Press Anthology of New Zealand Literature inevitably contains much that absolutely must appear in a credible historical anthology of New Zealand literature – Samuel Butler, Blanche Baughan, William Satchell, Jessie Mackey, Thomas Bracken, Katherine Mansfield, Robin Hyde, Eileen Duggan, R.A.K.Mason, Ursula Bethell, Pat Lawlor, John A.Lee, John Mulgan, Frank Sargeson, A.R.D.Fairburn, Charles Brasch, Allen Curnow, Denis Glover, James K.Baxter, Alistair Campbell, M.K.Joseph, Ruth Dallas, Dan Davin, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Ian Cross, Bruce Mason, Marilyn Duckworth, Hone Tuwhare, David Ballantyne, Ronald Hugh Morrieson, C.K.Stead, Fleur Adcock, Alan Brunton, Kendrick Smithyman, Sam Hunt, Elizabeth Smither. You get the picture. And that is only a minority of those who are represented before we get to the 1980s and the (inevitably more contestable) selections for the last three decades.
There are the oddities and surprises: Translations into English of letters that Wiremu Tamihana and Wiremu Te Rangikaheke wrote to the press in the 1860s. A section from Yates’ gardening guide. John Ward writing about the prophet Te Whiti in the 1880s. A selection from the Mazengarb Report on juvenile morals in 1954. Part of Erik Schwimmer’s judge’s report for a literary and art competition in 1961. John Clarke’s (“Fred Dagg’s” ) gumboot song from 1976.
Yes, of course this is all a feast. You would be churlish indeed not to enjoy its range. You will get the general drift and development of New Zealand writing from reading this anthology – or at least New Zealand writing until the last few decades.
But there is also the very real problem of absences and exclusions. I have already read three reviews of, or author-interview articles on, this volume (in the NZ Listener, Metro and the Sunday Star-Times) that make greater or lesser noises about the notable absences. There is no Vincent O’Sullivan because, apparently, he chose not to be included. There is no Janet Frame because of the editors’ inability to reach an agreement with the trustees of her estate. These are two glaring omissions, severely compromising the anthology’s ability to present New Zealand literature to those (especially overseas readers) who do not already know their way around it. When and if this book goes into a second edition, I hope the editors will be able to amend this.
At this point I could list a whole range of others missing in action. What, no Michael King? What, no James McNeish? What, no Bill Sewell? Okay, they’re not the greatest of literary figures, but they are more “representative” of their times than some who are included, and if an “historical” basis for selections is being commended, then they should have found a place. And (pardon my audacity) I would also suggest the anthologists’ awareness of what is going on in poetry now may be more limited than they realize. Richard Reeve is New Zealand’s most gifted younger lyric poet. He’s not here. If you are seeking a modern meditation on pioneer adjustments to New Zealand, nobody has done it better than David Howard in his mighty poem “The Word Went Round”. Neither he nor it is here. And what of the prolific Mark Pirie? And for that matter, what of the reliable veteran Alistair Paterson? Without Sewell, Reeve, Howard, Pirie and Paterson, the anthology’s record of poetry in the last forty years is both skewed and maimed.
I could, as others have done, add many more of the omitted. But to push on with this line of reasoning would be to ignore the obvious fact that an anthology is, after all, a selection. By its very nature it reflects the anthologists’ tastes. By its very nature it is exclusive. Still. What exclusions! And, dare I say it, what inclusions as well!
In the end, I sense a sort of academic game here, where the editors pretend they are not canon-making when in fact that is what they are inevitably trying to do, nods to populist and demotic writing notwithstanding.
This brings me back to the comment on the back cover, which says that this anthology will “for years to come… be our guide to what’s worth reading – and why.” No. Sorry. I do not believe this. Not only is the statement a flat contradiction of what the editors argue in the Introduction; but it also ignores the unwieldy weight of the tome, which will tend to confine it to institutions and library reference shelves. And even if an accessible e-book version is in the works, the anthology’s selections and omissions are too contentious not to make it subject for frequent comment and criticism. If this aspires to be a “guide” to what is worth reading, then for years people will be lining up to point out its defects.
By the way, I am absolutely delighted that my good mate Iain Sharp gets a look-in with his love poem to his good mate Joy. But I’m not sure that even this pleasure reconciles me to the absence of O’Sullivan, Frame, Reeve and co.
“NOT IN NARROW SEAS: Poems with Prose” by Allen Curnow (First published by Caxton Press, Christchurch, 1939)
Critique contributed by Dr. Peter Simpson
This week’s “Something Old” is contributed by Dr. PETER SIMPSON, who was formerly of the University of Auckland’s English Department. He is now Director of the Holloway Press. Asked to contribute to this blog, Dr. Simpson generously offered sections from a work currently in progress, in which he deals with the young Allen Curnow’s first book-length poem Not in Narrow Seas. Dr. Simpson examines first the work’s gestation over a number of years, and its appearance, piece by piece, in the liberal-left magazine Tomorrow in the years 1937-38, before it appeared in book form in 1939. Dr. Simpson notes in detail how Not in Narrow Seas compares with other longer poems of the time that made general statements about New Zealand, such as ARD Fairburn’s Dominion (which Curnow knew and reviewed). He then turns to considering the unique combined skills of the three men who produced the volume – Curnow himself, the printer Denis Glover, and the artist and graphic designer Leo Bensemann, who provided a satirical frontispiece showing a John Bullish cleric holding the Union Jack over the eyes of a Maori warrior. Bensemann also designed the brilliantly stylish red, black and yellow cover design. The sections in which Simpson deals with the poem itself, and how it was initially received, follow. Dr. Simpson calls his article:
“Necessary anti-myth? Or moans of a spiritual exile?: Allen Curnow’s Not in Narrow Seas: Poems with Prose, with a frontispiece by Leo Bensemann, Christchurch, The Caxton Press, 1939”
Not in Narrow Seas is deliberately and artfully arranged. It begins with a brief ‘Dedication’:
To him who can distinguish
In an unfeigned anguish
What is general
From what is personal;
Who has heard optimism
Crash in the last chasm
And knows hope more near
The straining heart’s despair.
As often with Curnow the syntax is tricky and the full meaning elusive, but is built around the stated or unstated oppositions between anguish/optimism, despair/hope, general/personal. Clearly this is not going to be any jingoistic flag-waving piece of rhetoric; on the contrary it puts the emphasis firmly on the negative.
After the ‘Dedication’ comes an unusually long epigraph, consisting of four passages from J.C. Beaglehole’s New Zealand A Short History, published as recently as 1936, that is, just one year before Curnow started writing the poem in 1937. Beaglehole, the great biographer and editor of Cook, was a Marxist and offered a sceptical and radical reading of New Zealand’s history towards which Curnow clearly felt sympathetic. The quotations from Beaglehole place the discovery of New Zealand in a European perspective: 1642: ‘the year of the English revolution, of the death of Galileo, and the birth of Newton’; the focus moves to the Canterbury settlement which is viewed sceptically: ‘For some years these provinces were proudly conscious of their nationality and their virtue; the obliterating passage of time, alas! has merged them with their fellows in a common mediocrity…’. This note is struck often in the poems that follow. The last quotation from Beaglehole emphasises the ‘verdant isolation’ in which ‘perhaps lies the remote secret – if there is one – of the national life’. This national perspective recurs in the poem, but within an understanding articulated by Beaglehole that ‘the making of new nationalities is an anachronism’. Curnow is frequently described these days as the archetypal ‘Nationalist’, but he himself repudiated the term, associating it (like Beaglehole) with Fascism (National Socialism).
Next (again on a separate page) comes the ‘Statement’. Here are the first two stanzas:
In your atlas not in narrow seas
Like a child’s kite anchored in the indifferent blue,
Two islands pointing from the pole, upward
From the Ross Sea and the tall havenless ice:
Small trade and no triumph, men of strength
Proved at football and in wars not their own:
So much and the soft weather you may call your own
And the week-end bach by the salt healing seas,
Deep soil and shingle-slide to try your strength
Under the sun or dark-to-thunder blue;
Beneath your impudent feet the glacial ice
Stirs like the hour-hand as you hurry upward.
I have quoted two stanzas in order to demonstrate that the form of the poem is a sestina, a form reputedly invented in the twelfth century by the Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel that was revived in the twentieth century by Ezra Pound (e.g. ‘Sestina: Altaforte’, 1909) and W.H. Auden (e.g. ‘Paysage Moralisé’, 1934). In the sestina the same six end words – in this case, ‘seas’, ‘blue’, ‘upward’, ‘ice’, ‘strength’, ‘own’ – are used in each of the six stanzas but in a different order, the last end word of one stanza becoming the first end-word of the next. Curnow was a great admirer of Auden – he named his first child, Wystan (born 1939), after the English poet) – and almost certainly ‘Paysage Moralisé’ was his model here.
After six stanzas working through all the combinations of the six end-words, a sestina normally ends with an Envoi, that is, a three line stanza each line of which incorporates two of the six end-words. Curnow’s Envoi, however, does not follow this latter convention:
Therefore I sing your agonies, not upward,
For the two islands not in narrow seas
Cringe in a wind from the world’s nether ice.
Published in 1939, a year before the nation’s centennial in 1940, Curnow consciously avoids the sort of flag-waving, chest-beating and self-congratulation normally associated with such events. His account of the nation is deliberately critical and negative in its sentiments and expression. Notice, for instance, the recurrence of (literally) negative phrases: ‘not in narrow seas’, ‘no triumph’, ‘wars not their own’ (my italics), and diction with negative connotations ‘indifferent’, ‘havenless’ (or elsewhere in the poem: ‘impudent’, ‘terrible’, ‘Shame at night and ambition that is like ice’, ‘Sorrowing not rejoicing in your strength’, ‘Suffering the imprisonment of seas’, ‘I sing your agonies’, ‘Cringe in a wind’).
The title of the poem, in particular, is worth unpacking. Why does the poet say ‘not in narrow seas’ instead of ‘in wide seas’? The implication is, surely, that the seas are not narrow but the ‘two islands’ are; that is, narrow not just geographically but in culture also, as in ‘narrow minded’.
In his Author’s Note to Collected Poems (1974), Curnow said of Not in Narrow Seas: ‘I suppose it could be called my contribution to the anti-myth about New Zealand which a few of us poets – and almost nobody else – were so busy making in those years. It had to be done. The country did not know what to make of itself, colony or nation, privileged happyland or miserable banishment: the polarisation was nothing new, and it is still with us, but we were the first to find poetry in it’ (Collected Poems, p. xiii).
For other contemporary poems expressing a similarly critical or negative nationalism, see, for example, Fairburn’s Dominion, Glover’s ‘Centennial’ (‘no-one remembered our failures’), and Charles Brasch’s ‘The Silent Land’.
The main body of Not in Narrow Seas (framed fore and aft by ‘Dedication’, epigraph, ‘Statement’ and ‘Epilogue’) consists of 12 numbered sections, each made up of a prose passage (in italics) followed by a poem in stanzas (in roman type). In the original book, the prose sections occupy the left hand page, the poems the right hand page of each opening, though in a couple of cases, 9 and 11, the poem spills onto a second page). The method can be demonstrated by number 4. Here is the prose passage:
Apparently there was a chance here for a clean break. The dark places of industrial England, its poverty and diseases, were left behind. Only the best had been taken, it seemed, of the English tradition. The liturgy of the Church of England, immigrants of picked stock, sufficient capital to provide for material needs and their development.
And here is the verse version:
Escape in seeming from smoke and iron
The hammered street and the hot wheels,
Clanging conquest of the deep-rich hills.
Left behind the known germ and poison
Breeding and soaking in decrepit soils.
Jerusalem is built as a city
That is at unity in itself,
Built with liturgy and adequate capital
Dwelling of the elect, the selected immigrants.
The verse is more imagistic than the prose, but makes broadly similar points. Perhaps the tone of irony (more obvious in context than in isolation) is stronger in the verse version. In later sections the failure of promise, the bitter disappointment of the reality as compared to the dream becomes explicit:
Here’s no renewal of the world’s youth
But age-soured infancy, a darkened dawn. (No. 6)
This section, in particular, focuses on the role of the Church; instead of ‘building a new social order…the Church is chiefly concerned with re-establishing and conserving an order in which she has learnt to flourish’.
A pervasive theme is that the myth of New Zealand as a ‘Better Britain of the South’ (not Curnow’s phrase but often used by New Zealanders at the time) is exploded by the reality: ‘The new country must be aware of the dangerous extent to which it is only a flattery by imitation of the old…There is reproduction, but not resurrection.’ (no. 10)
Or as the verse of no. 10 has it:
Of the curved, the angled, the tangible
Street measurable block by block:
Of entombed pity, only discernible
Vanity of the practised trick….
One of the most powerful sections in both prose and verse is no. 12, the last (before the Epilogue). At this point Curnow adopts a visionary, prophetic tone of voice:
Yet out of the orgy of imitation, there will in time be born men of spirit…Poets, painters, musicians, scientists will suffer agonies in a country serving under gross masters. But out of their sufferings the wheat lands, the cattle country and the sheep country, may be born again. At present, however, an artist can only suffer, and record his suffering; hoping to make others suffer with him the necessary agonies of first self-knowledge.
In the verse partner to this remarkable and highly Romantic statement (in which the Christian shaping of Curnow’s imagination, despite his anti-clericalism, is clearly evident in the vocabulary of ‘spirit’, ‘suffering’, being ‘born again’) Vincent Van Gogh is named as the type of the suffering artist:
Where Van Gogh struck his seed
Flat France twirled with pain:
To these Pacific boulders
There will come men
Put to such planting
After the rusted harrow
Mining among mountains
With their seed of sorrow:
The vertical ice, the dry
Shriek of the kea
A howl of misery like
The cornfields of Auvers.
Auvers is the town in northern France where Van Gogh spent his final months, the last line of the poem probably referring to what is generally regarded as his final painting, the extraordinary landscape, Wheatfield with Crows (1890). It is worth noting that Curnow is not the only New Zealand artist to identify with Van Gogh as the suffering artist. Colin McCahon later (in 1957) made lithographs of his friend John Caselberg’s poem Van Gogh, with its similar agonising cry: ‘God it is all dark./The heart beat but there is no answering hark/Of a hearer and no one to speak’, and his painting John in Canterbury (1959) is a version of Van Gogh’s Wheatfield with Crows in which Caselberg’s words (quoted above) replace the crows.
Not in Narrow Seas ends with an Epilogue that features a funeral, thus continuing the dark and to present-day ears somewhat self-pitying tone of the poem to the final lines:
Down I’ll lie
As cold as clay
Thank God true love
Doth pass away, [later changed to True love and false/both pass away]
The empire and the empty lands
The iron and the golden sands
Dredged and dumped
With the wheezing sea clay.
Not in Narrow Seas was positively reviewed in Tomorrow’s regular book reviewer F.G. (in all probability Frank Gadd, who, as it happens, was married to Frank Sargeson’s sister). The sentiments of the review are very much in keeping with those of the poem:
‘Nothing so arbitrary or official as an approaching centenary could provoke so genuine a response as is contained in these poems by Allen Curnow, yet they are singularly appropriate.. … Our centenary is falling, naturally enough, at a time when a few of our countrymen are feeling the need, and deploring the lack, of a national culture. Theirs is not mere peevishness, but a genuine distress. Born in an isolated country at the nether end of the world, they are beginning to resent the ties that bind them still to the lands from which their fathers came. Strangely enough, in a country so prosy as New Zealand, it is the poets who are showing the first signs of independent life… Why should they sing of Sussex? Lacking such traditional impulses, they find it difficult to sing at all. The difficulty, however, is passing… Our poets have found voice. Expect not their notes to be those of tui or bell-bird. The sparrow is also ours….Not in Narrow Seas is a book that should be bought, not only by habitual verse readers, but by everyone who takes an intelligent interest in their own country. The poet has expressed an experience that is common to many New Zealanders. The Caxton Press have presented the work very attractively, and its value is further enhanced by Leo Bensemann’s most appropriate frontispiece.’ (Tomorrow, June 21, 1939, pp. 539-40).
Not everyone, however, was so sympathetic to Curnow’s critical nationalism. The Dunedin Evening Star reviewer wrote:
‘These poems deal, actually, with the foundation and settlement of Canterbury, but the argument they propound is insinuated to be true of the country as a whole, and the argument is nasty. Some of Mr Curnow’s allegations would no doubt be fairly well substantiated in fact, but his method of approach has nothing to commend it, and besides, does one rake over a heap of manure just to increase the odour?’ (quoted in A Catalogue of Publications…, p. 27-28).
A more considered but still negative response came from H. Winston Rhodes, an Australian born academic (and a Moscow-aligned socialist) who was part of Tomorrow’s editorial team, associated the poem with a tendency also present in Fairburn and Brasch (whose first book The Land and the People appeared in the same year as Not in Narrow Seas) of poets who were either literal or spiritual exiles.
He said: ‘It is interesting and perhaps slightly amusing to notice that during the last few years the guide book literature of New Zealand has been held up to public scorn…. Instead the moans of the exiles are upon us and our mental and spiritual impoverishment is becoming more and more the theme of our writers…In view of the approaching centennial it might be said that this is all to the good. There needs to be some counterblast to the orgy of self-praise to which we are committed…. I admit, if you like that the poet, the painter, the scientist will suffer agonies in a country serving under gross masters, but I assert that each of them, if he is worth his salt, will suffer exactly the same agonies in whatever country he lives at the present time, because these same gross masters are not confined to New Zealand… What I miss in the artistic exile is that fierce love of one’s own native land, not the weak emotion that leads to flag-flapping and tourist hotels, but the deep indescribable affection which can no more be explained than it can be explained away. The moans of the exiles do not express this.’ (‘These Two Islands, Tomorrow , July 19, 1939 pp. 600-01)
A bracing but necessary anti-myth or the moans of a spiritual exile? However we may read it now, Not in Narrow Seas is a fascinating document of its time and place; the first important work of a major poet and a striking piece of collaboration between Curnow, Bensemann and Glover: poet, artist, and printer.
Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him.
TOO MUCH HOBBIT
I know this is eccentric of me, but even after my children could read, I made it my habit each evening to read books to them – principally what they called “chapter-books”. By this they meant books largely without illustrations and divided into chapters. Books, in other words, which are the length of adult novels.
I usually took eleven or twelve as being the age at which each of my children became too old to be read to.
All of my eight children are now above the age of twelve, and some of them have children of their own, so my dramatic out-loud evening readings have long since ceased. But while they lasted, various of my children were treated to Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, sundry volumes by A.A.Milne, all C.S.Lewis’s Narnia books, all Arthur Ransome’s Swallows and Amazons books, all Hugh Lofting’s Dr.Doolittle books, all the books Erich Kastner wrote for children (Emil and the Detectives, Lotte and Lisa etc.), most of Edith Nesbit, some of Frank Baum’s Oz stories, Stevenson’s Kidnapped and Catriona and Treasure Island, the magnificent “Monkey” legends as translated by Arhur Whalley, the antique “Twins” series that was started by Lucy Fitch Perkins, Walter de la Mare’s The Three Royal Monkeys, John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, some of the heavy-handed (and far too English jingoistic) “historical’ novels of Ronald Welch, Fritz Muhlenweg’s German classic Big Tiger and Christian, the “historical” reconstructions of Rosemary Sutcliffe, Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World, J.Meade Falkner’s Moonfleet, the whole of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women series, Susan Coolidge’s “Katy” trilogy (What Katy Did etc.), Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer, Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, Pinocchio, Raspe’s tales of Baron Munchausen, George MacDonald’s The Princess and the Goblin and its sequel, John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River, Thackeray’s The Rose and the Ring, Captain Marryat’s sea-faring tales, but especially his Children of the New Forest, various national collections of myths and legends, and others too numerous to mention.
I also made it my business to read out loud to the kids – complete and unabridged – some books that are generally classified as being for adults, but that I thought would have some child interest. Bulwer Lytton’s (tedious, as it turned out) Last Days of Pompeii. George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss (the social satire was a bit above the kids, but the relationship of Maggie and Tom was gripping). And a reasonable whack of Dickens – to be precise Oliver Twist, The Old Curiosity Shop, and David Copperfield.
Should any child of mine happen to read this, he or she might reasonably protest that he/she never had ALL these books read to him/her. Quite right. I am saying that these are some of the books I read to my children over the years; but the specific audience was a changing one, as children progressively grew up and left the magic reading circle. Still, I know there are some titles here that I read two or three times to different selections of offspring, so that the whole family copped them.
Now among the many books I read to my children were those of J.R.R.Tolkien. There was the manageable little fable Farmer Giles of Ham. There was The Hobbit. And there was Lord of the Rings. The one and only time I read Lord of the Rings was when I read it out loud as a bedtime story for my three eldest children – it took about six weeks. When we had finished, Ben, Katy and Vincent (aged at the time 11, 10 and 8) produced their own art-work version of key events in the story, which I still have preserved. This was, of course, long before Peter Jackson and his team got to work on it all.
I hope you have gathered by now that I have a nodding acquaintance with children’s literature, especially of a more traditional kind. I more-or-less know what does and what does not work for kids.
Tolkien’s admirers have attempted to inflate his works into something more but – even if overlaid with donnish erudition –they are essentially for kids. Or for adults who want to be kids for a while. The Hobbit is a delightful little quest story – no more and no less. When I first read it as a kid myself, I delighted particularly in the “Riddles in the Dark” chapter and in the character of Gollum and in the dragon at the end. Lord of the Rings, in my estimation, is a kids’ story that has got out of hand. It was understandably popular when it came out in three instalments in the 1950s. Hard to resist a tale that keeps promising a big conclusion although, in the event, the conclusion is a bit of a dud. But do you attempt to read all sorts of profundities into it, as addle-headed American college kids did from the 1960s on? Poor you. It is largely mere tale-spinning. I instinctively sympathize with C.S.Lewis who, when his friend Tolkien was reading bits of his magnum opus out loud to him, was heard to grumble “Not another fucking elf!”
Lord of the Rings is simply too much of the same thing repeated over and over.
The final episode of Peter Jackson’s three-film version was quite rightly criticised for the yawnful way in which it ended – one sequence of characters being farewelled being followed by another such sequence and another and another until sane audiences groaned at the tedium of it. But in fairness to Jackson’s team, they were only reproducing some of the longueurs in Tolkien’s original text.
In further fairness to Jackson’s team – and much as the overblown movies did not appeal to me personally – it really did take three movies to cover the whole story of Lord of the Rings.
But here is my point. It certainly does NOT take three movies to cover the simple little bedtime quest story that is The Hobbit. Inflating it into three movies, and thereby pretending it is a story as large in scope as Lord of the Rings, seems to me no more nor less than a way of keeping a profitable franchise going. The obsequious and gushy way our news-media covered the film’s premiere in Wellington is obnoxious, but is merely a symptom of our news-media’s superficiality. It is not my interest here. Likewise, the literalism of the movies, which drains the verbal magic out of the stories, is not my interest here. But it does concern me that a simple little kiddie’s story has become an industry, with commercial spin-offs and merchandising and the fetishizing of plot-points.
You want your kids to enjoy The Hobbit? You want to share their pleasure in it? Very well then. Skip the movies and read it to them as a bedtime story. I assure you, it goes down very well in that form.