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A world of angels, owls, and ghosts

17 August 2011

Children’s books reveal a great deal about human nature, says Paul Vallely

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

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

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

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

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

These are worlds where other things are pos­sible than the merely realistic. Could the giant robber Black Jack really have saved himself from strangulation by inserting a metal tube into his throat before stepping out on to the gallows at Tyburn? It does not matter as much as the loyalty and love, duplicity and greed of a picares­que 18th-century world of travelling fairs and madhouses.

In The Owl Service, Mr Garner blurs even further the boundaries of myth and history, per­ception and reality, with a claustrophobic emo­tional force that teaches about the power of the unstated.

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

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

Paul Vallely is associate editor of The Independent.

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