“NO WITCHES, no demons, no alcohol, no death, no religion . . .” Geraldine McCaughrean, author of more than 160 books, was this week awarded the CILIP Carnegie Medal for her latest children’s book, Where the World Ends. In her acceptance speech, she criticised editors for policing text for complex vocabulary; and she also listed the topics that publishers now avoid to get their books sold into schools. No chance, then, for the old tales of martyrdom that used to be the basic fare of a religious upbringing.
Today the Church remembers the first British martyr, St Alban, who was killed during a Roman clampdown on subversive religion. The historical record is vague, to say the least, but the Venerable Bede compiled the story that is now most widely known: how Alban sheltered a priest who was on the run, and was so impressed by his guest that, when the soldiers arrived, he disguised himself in the priest’s cloak and was executed in his place. Grim tales such as this were recounted to the young of past generations to encourage them to be uncomplaining if forced to endure lesser hardships, including, at times, ungentle handling by their pedagogues. If they suffered, well, suffering was the true path of faith. Perhaps it is as well that such material is off the syllabus.
There is, though, another aspect to such stories. The tale of St Alban is here related in the way that a Victorian Dean of Gloucester, the Very Revd Dr Henry Spence, would have chosen, “stripped of its useless marvellous adjuncts” (The Church of England: A history for the people, 1898). It is these very adjuncts — the river that dried to allow Alban to cross over to his martyrdom, the roses that bloomed at his feet, the miraculous holy well that sprang up where Alban’s severed head rolled down the hill, and, most particularly, the eyeballs that popped out of the head of the executioner as he administered the fatal blow — that make the story both more vivid and more fantastical. Strict historical accuracy is immaterial when it comes to inspiring young imaginations: fiction can do this just as well. And children naturally lean towards the Horrible Histories approach. On Saturday, the young people of the town of St Albans will parade through the streets wearing extravagant costumes and operating vast puppets. Many will be dressed as roses; but there will also be two huge, bloodshot eyeballs on stakes. No prizes for guessing which are the most popular.
It is a natural instinct to protect children from the darker aspects of life. But being over-protective of their minds is as bad as not allowing them to play out of doors. If children are to exercise their imaginations as well as their limbs, they need to face difficulties and overcome challenges — not unsupervised, of course. There is a traditional way in which adults monitor the way that children are exposed to life’s serious topics. It is precious, and needs to be protected from interference. It is called a library.