Sep 4 2009 10:37am

Childish Things

In 1837, the poet Robert Southey published a collection of essays called The Doctor. Even though he was the British Poet Laureate, and a contemporary of Wordsworth and Coleridge, this little collection contained something that would outlast all of his other works. It was called “The Story of the Three Bears,” and it was the first printed version of Goldilocks.

All of the elements were there—the three bears with their porridge, chairs and beds, the building repetition that delights every little child who hears it. But there is one, curious thing—in this version, the intruder was not a golden-haired little girl, but an old woman.

In a way, it makes more sense. Most children, if they broke into a strange house, would probably not spend most of their time looking for a nice place to rest, no matter how filling the porridge. And yet by common consent, as the story started to be retold, the little girl took over.

Because there are some stories that suit a child protagonist. This is more than just appealing to a similarly young audience—after all, for a children’s book to endure it must captivate parents as well. A child protagonist has less “baggage” than an adult. We might well ask what Southey’s old lady thought she was doing creeping into a strange house, but we would never need to ask the same of Goldilocks—she was simply curious, and had little respect for property.

Yet that doesn’t mean that child protagonists are harmless, any more than real children. J.M. Barrie, in Peter Pan, knew very well that innocence is not at all the same as kindness:

“Who is Captain Hook?” [Peter] asked with interest.
“Don’t you remember?” [Wendy] asked, amazed, “how you killed him and saved all our lives?”
“I forget them after I kill them” he replied carelessly.

Of course, Peter is an unusual case, because he is not able to grow up, not allowed to develop the sense that anything is more important than his eternal playtime. This is important, because the prospect of aging, of trading innocence for experience, is present in almost every children’s story. It might be very central, like in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials, where the whole plot hinges around the moment where Will and Lyra move from childish fluidity to more adult knowledge, but this is not necessary. Even in Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, Max chooses to leave his wild otherworld, where he is an all-powerful king, to return to the safety and comfort of home. He recognizes that he is not yet ready for independence.

But in most stories where the main character is a little older than Max, independence is exactly what is needed. No-one can have a story truly their own if a responsible adult will come and sort everything out for them. Parents are rarely permitted to get involved. They don’t necessarily need to be eaten by a crazed rhinoceros (Roald Dahl’s distinctive method from James and the Giant Peach), but the child must be allowed to overcome their own obstacles. The parents must be absent, incapacitated or, occasionally, given their own plot. Brian Jacques, in his third Redwall book, Mattimeo, achieves a very rare balance by having half the story revolve around the eponymous young mouse, captured by slavers, and half around his father, the warrior Matthias, who is searching for him. Both of them learn from the experience. But then again, Matthias had first been established as a young protagonist himself, in the original book, Redwall. In a way, he is still coming to terms with becoming part of a protective older generation, rather than the young adventurer.

Because this tension between roles is at the heart of the child protagonist. They must forge a path between the opposing forces of comforting adult protection and an independent, personal existence.

This is dependent as much on culture as age. Juliet, of Romeo and Juliet is thirteen, yet is not a child protagonist because it was not uncommon to marry at that age in that era. A similar story nowadays, with the ages unchanged, would almost certainly question Romeo’s motives. In contrast, the shock of John Wyndham’s Chocky relies entirely on the shift from the main child character—Matthew—apparently talking to an ordinary imaginary friend, to the realization that he is possessed by an alien intelligence. Notably, the telling moment, early on, comes when Matthew is found arguing with “Chocky” over whether there should be seven or eight days in a week. But as his father says: “to an eleven-year-old…a week is a week and it has seven days—it’s an unquestionable provision, it is just so.” This kind of discussion is entirely outside of Matthew’s usual way of thought—he has become involved in something far larger, something which terrifies his parents. In contrast, all that terrifies Juliet’s parents is that their daughter might not marry their chosen suitor—she is entirely part of the adult world.

Which leads us back to Goldilocks—the fairy tale heroine. She is neither too childish and protected, her parents are apparently quite happy to let her roam around the bears’ neighborhood. Nor is she too independent—she obviously has no trouble with regarding all food and furniture as being provided for her, and she is never in any real danger.

No, Goldilocks possesses the ideal combination for a child protagonist—the inventiveness and curiosity of an independent mind, unhampered by the dreary worries of adulthood. Or, as she would say, she is “just right.”

* Image is from this website, crediting Margaret Evans Price. Full citation: Wadsworth, Wallace C. The Real Story Book. Margaret Evans Price, illustrator. Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1927.

David Whitley is British, and a recent graduate of the University of Oxford. His first novel is The Midnight Charter, a fantasy adventure for young adults which, to his complete astonishment, has sold on five continents in thirteen languages. The first of a trilogy, it will be published in the US by Roaring Brook in September.

Torie Atkinson
1. Torie
One of my favorite bits of fiction is Alice in Wonderland, and I absolutely despise it when folks try and cast that book as a "coming of age" story. There is no coming of age. She's a child. In fact, she's a nasty, mean little girl (I love her). The complexities of adult life and society are utterly absurd to her (and thanks to Carroll, to us as well!) and that does not change.

Hip hip hurrah for children getting to stay children every once in a while. I'm looking forward to the Where the Wild Things Are movie.
2. DavidA
@ Torie:

I share your view about Alice, which is why I am troubled by Tim Burton's choice to cast Alice as a young adult. Directors are allowed (indeed, can hardly avoid) taking liberties with their source material, but that is simply a different story altogether.
3. Janeite42
Thanks very much for the interesting and thoughtful essay. I look forward to reading The Midnight Charter.

@Torie: Mean and nasty? Alice? I guess I'll have to read the books again. As I recall she just acted like a normal kid.

btw, I heard that the Burton film depicts a third visit, taking place after both Wonderland and Looking Glass. So changing her age doesn't seem so much of a director's liberty-taking. It's more like the whole film is.
David Goldfarb
4. David_Goldfarb
Quite a lot of Diana Wynne Jones' books introduce a sympathetic adult about two-thirds of the way through -- often (thought not always) a parent or parental figure. After the children have spent a lot of time flailing about and getting in trouble, this adult believes them and organizes things and generally moves the plot towards resolution. This is unusual in YA fiction, where more often the kids have to resolve things themselves against a background of adult indifference or even hostility.
Chris Barber
5. squidcorp
The technical logic for the eventual replacement of the old woman with young Goldilocks in 'The Three Bears' is interesting, but what I find more interesting is the whys and hows of the transformation of folk tales from adult oral tradition to children's literature in the first place.

I'm no armchair expert on the subject, but I've read a couple arguments that folk tales used to be told for the entertainment of adult laborers around kitchens & campfires. The violent, sexual and otherwise bawdy humor of the older versions are said to have reflected this before the stories were cleaned up and repackaged as children's lit by those sneaky Victorians. This could have been a sweeping marketing trend, much like those that lump contemporary authors in one section of the bookstore or another; but it still doesn't address why such marketing would make any sense at the time.

On a broader level, it could have been tied to some kind of unofficial social program. If it's true that folk tales were once told by and for adults, it's no great stretch to imagine an anxious class distinction behind the transformation into children's literature at the time when such tales were first put to paper (or shortly after). I can easily picture Victorian folk tale writer/compilers and their publishers associating folksy tales of the lower classes with the intellectual capacities of their own middle-class children. I'm in no way agreeing with this affinity - merely suggesting it as a possible logic for the seemingly arbitrary recuperation. This would naturally involve rewriting the stories to fit the period's sense of propriety, as well as making them more accessible to young ears at bedtime.

(The class distinction idea is very probably something I read at some point and don't remember reading. That it feels like an independent idea at the moment probably says more about my poor memory than it does about anything else!)
David Whitley
6. DavidWhitley
@1 Absolutely, she remains a child. Which I've always felt makes her reactions to the land around her so perfect. She is lot in a sea of bizarre adult behaviour, trying to find her way! ("I don't know what you mean by your way, all ways around here belong to me") You'd never find an adult who could have coped with Wonderland in the same way, because they wouldn't take anything so directly at face value!

@2 & 3 I hadn't heard that about Tim Burton. I'm certainly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, he usually has interesting ideas. Though I am glad that it is planned as a return visit, rather than her being a young adult on her first visit, it would make it odd.

And Janeite42, thank you! I very much hope that you enjoy The Midnight Charter!

@4 Right, I have go off and read some more Diana Wynne Jones. I trust her to be able to do that well, and she's always seemed excellent. Certainly a cunning strategy, and a great idea for her rather tough-minded, no-nonesense approach to fantasy.

@5 Very, very interesting point. As far as I understand it, the original tales which, say, the Brothers Grimm collected, were traditional tales, which were indeed often gruesome. Didn't mean that they weren't for children, though - before the Victorians made them "angels" children were allowed to enjoy the guts and gore as much as they liked! Have you seen "Shock-headed Peter"? That was a satire on how "real" children's tales should be, and it can give adults nightmares!

I believe, though, that the rise of children's literature wasn't always a bowdlerising one. Particularly in the "Golden Age" of the Edwardian period, children could experience ideas that were far more radical than many of their parents would allow - sheltering political refugees in "The Railway Children", dealing with misplaced children of the Raj and poor medical pracitices in "The Secret Garden"... and yes, finding out some fairly brutal life lessons in fairy tales. Whether or not the woodcutter saves the day in "Little Red Ridinghood", the obvious threat remains. And of course, because it is down as "childrens", the parents weren't always paying as close attention as they would have if they'd realised the subtexts, which many a bright child did...
7. squidcorp
Yeah, there's no question that kids can get a kick out of ribald and gruesome tales. I haven't read "Shock-Headed Peter" - adding to list.

I half-remember kind-of enjoying "Off With Their Heads - Fairy Tales the the Culture of Childhood", but you've convinced me that it's high time I looked into the subject further.
8. birdbrainbb
I absolutely agree that adults should keep well out of a kid's adventure unless they're prepared to go along with it (while letting the kids lead, of course). A good example of an adult joining in with kids but not overtaking them is the Swallows & Amazons series by Arthur Ransome-- really good books, where adults are present, help out occasionally, maybe provide a little guidance (no sleeping in an abandoned boat at night), but no taking lead or jumping in where they're not wanted. It just makes things less fun and less IMPORTANT if adults are forever flouncing into a kid's adventure and becoming a babysitter. It really only works if a kid invites an adult into the adventure (as in Diana Wynne Jones' books, which are utterly fantastic as a whole).

I think I'm babbling. Sorry!

I could write a whole paper about the importance of letting kids do things themselves, but I'll leave that off for another comment. :D

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