Children’s Fantasy

CBeebies Alice in Wonderland: A Journey of Imagination

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Having a nearly three-year-old means that I’m always attuned to what’s new on CBeebies and, naturally, there’s a lot of bespoke Christmas entertainment this time of the year, including the ever-popular Christmas panto. Last year it was Peter Pan, the year before it was A Christmas Carol, while this year, so appositely on the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carrol’s celebrated children’s classic, it was Alice in Wonderland.

Of course, these pantos are adapted for the target audience of CBeebies, i.e. toddlers and very young children under 6, so one expects a simplified storyline, and favourite CBeebies presenters and characters to make an appearance (I suppose the episodic nature of Carroll’s narrative helped a lot with the latter). So this year the very talented Cat Sandion was a refreshingly non-blonde and rosy-cheeked Alice, CBeebies favourite Andy Day impersonated the iconic Mad Hatter, while Justin Fletcher – justly dubbed “CBeebies royalty” – was a hilarious Queen of Hearts. There were other great casting choices including the “naughty pirates” trio from Swashbuckle, Captain Sinker, Cook and Line, now transformed into the Duchess, Cook (naturally) and a hilariously oversized Baby.

What was very different from Lewis Carroll’s Alice was the emphasis of this panto on imagination and make-believe. The first scene presented Alice and her entire family (not just her older sister as in the book) having a picnic by the riverside. Alice, dressed in the recognisable blue pinafore dress popularised by the Disney adaptation, declares that: “I don’t have any imagination… I can’t make-believe at all…” Her family endeavour to convince her otherwise, pointing to possible mundane things that can become magical in their opening song: the rabbits in the field, the father’s pack of cards, or a caterpillar (of course prefiguring some of the best-known scenes in the book). And sure enough, the white rabbit appears, prompting Alice to follow him down the rabbit hole.

Alice becomes huge and then very small via some clever stage magic, meets the caterpillar (very nicely played by the newest CBeebies presenter Ben Faulks) and the Duchess and co., talks to the Cheshire Cat (again, very clever staging here!) and plays a variation of “musical chairs” with the Mad Hatter, the Hare and the Doormouse. And it’s at that point that she suddenly realises that she can create things by just imagining them (though I have to say that the make-believe food at the party reminded me more of Peter Pan than Alice). By the time she reaches the Queen’s party she can imagine and create a lifetime’s supply of jam tarts to save her family from the Queen’s wrath. So instead of having a vivid dream that can be sometimes weird, somewhat disturbing and definitely a little scary at times, this Alice and her family create and navigate their own Wonderland, which makes this narrative more of a journey towards appreciating the power of imagination as the proper domain of children (a staple characteristic of the ‘Romantic child’ still with us today) than a journey into the unconscious or towards maturity, as Carroll’s text has been often read. Perhaps this is the result of the educational role of CBeebies: tellingly, the producer, Jon Hancock, noted that:

there’s also a beautiful message we’re bringing out of the story that I hope will inspire parents and children – to have fun with your imagination, and for parents to really invest and partake in imaginary play with their children.

The panto did invite some audience interaction – as one would expect – by having children wear rabbit ears, and “explained away” or eliminated some of the most disturbing elements of the book (the scene that used to scare me as a child was the Duchess’s baby turning into a piglet but here the baby just wears a pig’s snout and says that he has “dressed up” for the party).

Overall this panto was completely within the tradition of previous CBeebies shows, full of colour, catchy songs (I’m still humming “Use your imagination…”) and excellent staging (it was recorded at the Wales Millennium Centre at Cardiff Bay). It managed to incorporate CBeebies characters, showcase the talented CBeebies presenters and introduce young children to a story they will read and watch many times in the future in numerous adaptations. Yes, perhaps the main theme of the story was altered to suit the needs of the CBeebies agenda, but that’s what adaptation is all about: “repetition with variation”, as Linda Hutcheon has shown.

  • If you missed it, you can watch the CBeebies Alice in Wonderland here
  • For the entire cast of the panto see here
  • For a Q and A with the producer see here
  • For clips, games and activities (including ideas for a CBeebies panto party) see here

 

Two tiny Tolkienian parallels in Susan Cooper’s reflections

As I have written in previous entry, I am currently working on a monograph on Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy for the Palgrave Macmillan Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature series. I have, therefore, been reading and re-reading primary and secondary materials related to the works and creative processes of Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Pat O’Shea, Mary Tannen, Jenny Nimmo, Kate Thompson and many other writers who were inspired by Welsh and Irish medieval texts.

37361A book that I managed to get hold of recently (thank God for libraries and inter-library loans!) is Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children’s Literature, edited by Barbara Harrison and Gregory Maguire and published in 1983. This book – which I haven’t seen cited in children’s literature scholarship as much as it deserves – is a compilation of lectures, panel discussions, informal remarks and such-like reflections from novelists, illustrators, critics, publishers, librarians, and educators who took part in events organized by the Center for the Study of Children’s Literature at Simmons College, Boston in the 1970s and 1980s. The list of contributors includes Penelope Lively, Lloyd Alexander, Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Maurice Sendak, Nancy Bond, and many others.

While reading one of Susan Cooper’s contributions, “Nahum Tarune’s Book” (a reflection on Walter de la Mare’s anthology of verse Come Hither, and the powerful influence it had over Cooper’s imagination and writing practice) I was twice stopped in my tracks. Cooper very eloquently discusses the “great excitement that is a mixture of astonishment and delight” (p. 82) that certain books, poems, and works of art are capable of producing, and within that context she reminisces about her first experience of the theatre and the “magical” sensation of joy that it offers. Cooper adds:

Why is the feeling so much intensified in the theater? It must be because… that special delighting quality comes totally alive to a degree possible nowhere else. The fantasy is made real. The other world is there, before your eyes. You are caught up, while the play lasts, in a waking dream. (Cooper, 1987, p. 82)

Any student of Tolkien reading this will have made the link already. This extract couldn’t help but bring back to my mind Tolkien’s words on this most mysterious and enigmatic notion he refers to in “On Fairy-Stories”, the idea of “Faërian Drama”.

 Now‚ “Faërian Drama” – those plays which according to abundant records the elves have often presented to men – can produce Fantasy with a realism and immediacy beyond the compass of any human mechanism. As a result their usual effect (upon a man) is to go beyond Secondary Belief. If you are present at a Faërian drama you yourself are, or think that you are, bodily inside its Secondary World. The experience may be very similar to Dreaming and has (it would seem) sometimes (by men) been confounded with it. But in Faërian drama you are in a dream that some other mind is weaving, and the knowledge of that alarming fact may slip from your grasp. (Tolkien, 2008, p. 63)

Marion_Palace_Historic_InteriorNow there are clear differences here too. Cooper is talking about the experience of real theatre, in the primary world, creating the illusion of the fantasy world materialized, an experience akin to a “waking dream”. Tolkien, on the other hand, is talking about actually experiencing a secondary world through a dramatic performance devised by the Elves – an experience akin to “a dream that some other mind is weaving”.* Still, in both cases we have two significant writers who have created splendid fantasy worlds drawing parallels between drama/performance, fantasy/secondary worlds and dreaming/visions.**

And while I was still pondering this extract, thinking about the common elements between Cooper’s reflective essay and Tolkien’s “On Fairy-Stories” (a subject I have explored in my chapter for the Companion to J.R.R. Tolkien on Tolkien’s legacy), I stumbled upon a second noteworthy quotation. Talking about images in dreams, and how they often find their way in her fiction, Cooper reminisces about a particular scene in The Grey King (1975), the fourth of her The Dark is Rising (1965-1977) series:

I was working on a book at the time, and a few weeks later I came to a point in my story where two of my characters were to find themselves in a magical place called the Lost Land. That was an image – an Atlantis myth, I suppose – that had haunted me ever since I was very young. (Cooper, 1987, p. 83)

The Tolkienian point of interest is unmissable here too. Tolkien famously talked about his “Atlantis complex” (Tolkien, 1981, p. 213), a recurring dream throughout his life of a great wave, flooding and engulfing everything around him, which he eventually turned into a new version of the Atlantis myth in the story of Númenor. Cooper’s underwater Lost Land ties the classical tradition of Atlantis with the submerging of Cantre’r Gwaelod (‘the low/bottom cantref’), as referenced in Boddi Maes Gwyddneu (‘The drowning of Gwyddno’s plain’), a 12th-century Welsh poem in the Black Book of Carmarthen (the tale of this  underwater land survived in later Welsh folklore).

Martin,_John_-_The_Deluge_-_1834Fantasy as a waking dream-performance, archetypical images of submerged lands, and – perhaps most importantly – a desire to self-reflect and self-theorize the fantasy writing process. Do my two little extracts point – perhaps in a very small way – to some common elements in the practice and thematics of writing fantasy? We know that Susan Cooper studied English at Oxford, via the syllabus Tolkien and C.S. Lewis devised and has written about reading The Lord of the Rings with excitement when it was first published, and finding that it was “full of echoes of the Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Icelandic literature we were studying ”  (Copper, 2002, p. 143). As noted above, I have also discussed parallels between Tolkien’s self-theorizing in “On Fairy-Stories” and the reflective essays of Susan Cooper, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones and Ursula K. Le Guin (Fimi, 2014).

The funny thing about Cooper’s essay “Nahum Tarune’s Book” is that I had read it before! As I was nearing its end, I kept getting those strange feelings of dejavu – a sensation that I had heard all these ideas a long time ago. And I plainly had! The essay was reprinted in Dreams and Wishes (1996), Cooper’s reflections on her own art, a book I had read many years ago. It’s strange how the mind works and how links and parallels sometimes immediately leap off the page, but other times do not. But those are the pleasures of research. I hope that – at least – this little story sings the praises of re-reading – revisiting primary and secondary sources with a fresh eye and a new lens.

 

 

* Janet Brennan Croft (2014) has explored the potential origins of Tolkien’s cryptic “Faërian Drama” pointing to Middle English texts such as Pearl and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, as well as Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (her article is available to read here). I also understand that Dr Kelley M. Wickham-Crowley has a forthcoming article in Tolkien Studies entitled: “‘Mind to Mind’: Tolkien’s Faerian Drama and Sir Orfeo”, which I am really looking forward to reading.

** Another point of difference is Cooper’s reverence for the theatre and its potential to create a fantasy world, and Tolkien’s apparent rejection of drama as a form capable of producing the ‘secondary belief’ necessary for fantasy (see Tolkien, 2008, pp. 61-2). That didn’t stop him, though, from being completely enchanted by Peter Pan which he saw on the stage on April 1910 (see Fimi, 2005). He wrote in his diary after watching it: “Indescribable but shall never forget it as long as I live. Wish E.[dith] had been with me” (Carpenter 1977, pp. 47-8).

 

References:

Carpenter, Humphrey (2007) J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography. London: Allen & Unwin.

Cooper, Susan (1987) ‘Nahum Tarune’s Book’, in Harrison, B. and Maguire, G. (eds) Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children’s Literature. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard, pp. 76-85.

Cooper, Susan (1996) Dreams and Wishes: Essays on Writing for Children. New York: Margaret K. McElderry Books.

Cooper, Susan (2002) ‘There and Back Again: Tolkien Reconsidered’, The Horn Book Magazine, March/April, pp. 143-50.

Croft, Janet Brennan (2014) ‘Tolkien’s Faerian Drama: Origins and Valedictions’, Mythlore, 32.2 (Spring/Summer 2014), pp. 31-44. (Available here)

Fimi, D. (2006) ‘“Come Sing ye Light Fairy Things Tripping so Gay”: Victorian Fairies and the Early Work of J.R.R. Tolkien’, Working with English: Medieval and Modern Language, Literature and Drama, 2, pp. 10-26. (Available here)

Fimi, D. (2013) ‘Later Fantasy Fiction’, in Lee, S. (ed.) A Companion to J. R. R. Tolkien. Oxford: Blackwell, pp. 335-49.

Harrison, B. and Maguire, G. (eds) (1987) Innocence and Experience: Essays and Conversations on Children’s Literature. New York: Lothrop, Lee and Shepard.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (1981) The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (2008) Tolkien On Fairy-stories, edited by Verlyn Flieger and Douglas A. Anderson. London: HarperCollins.

 

Two books, two conferences, and other news

I am on annual leave at last (hooray!) and it’s time for another long-overdue update. It’s been a very busy few months, mainly taken up by working on two books (!) and being involved in a number of events.

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Dr Andrew Higgins graduated in July. Very proud of him!

First things first: together with Andrew Higgins, I have been working on a scholarly edition of a series of manuscripts by J.R.R. Tolkien on the invention of fictional languages. Tolkien connoisseurs will be aware of Tolkien’s essay ‘A Secret Vice’, which was first published in The Monsters and the Critics and Other Essays, edited by Christopher Tolkien, in 1983. Our book will be a new, extended edition which will reveal significant new material by Tolkien and will be accompanied by a substantial introduction and commentary. The book is scheduled to be published by HarperCollins in February 2016. You can pre-order the book from Amazon here… and here’s the link to the HarperCollins page.

Andrew Higgins, my co-editor, finished his PhD on The Genesis of Tolkien’s Mythology under my supervision last February, and graduated this July. It was a very proud moment to watch him cross the stage at the Wales Millennium Centre. It was a pleasure to collaborate with him on this book – and we still have lots to do (proofs are expected soon!)

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Impressive views from the top of the Weston Library, Oxford

This book necessitated a few visits to Oxford to consult Tolkien’s manuscripts. It was lovely to work in the newly refurbished Weston Library (previously known as the New Bodleian Library) where Special Collections (including the Tolkien material) are held. Here is a photo of the spectacular views from the top of the building.

The second book I have been working on is a research monograph, tentatively titled Celtic Myth in Contemporary Children’s Fantasy and under contract with Palgrave Macmillan as part of their Critical Approaches to Children’s Literature series. I should be done by Christmas and the publication date will be at some point next year. The book explores the ways contemporary children’s authors have rewritten, revised and adapted Irish and Welsh medieval sources to reveal matters of identity and ideology. Children’s authors I discuss include Alan Garner, Susan Cooper, Lloyd Alexander, Jenny Nimmo, Pat O’Shea, Kate Thompson, and Henry Neff.

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Talk at the Centre For Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University in June on re-writing the ‘Mabinogion’ in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider

While working on this monograph, I have already shared initial and interim findings in my research-led teaching and in conference papers and talks: first, my Masters course for the Mythgard Institute in Spring term 2014 (Celtic Myth in Children’s Fantasy); second, a number of sessions of my Year 2 undergraduate module Monsters, Cyborgs and Imaginary Worlds; third, my talk at the Centre For Lifelong Learning at Cardiff University in June (“Welsh heritage for teenagers: Re-writing the ‘Mabinogion’ in Alan Garner’s The Owl Service and Jenny Nimmo’s The Snow Spider”); and, fourth, my recent paper at IMC Leeds in July on “‘Celtic’ Myth and Celticity in Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain” (see below).

In other research news, I gave a paper for the “Enchanted Edwardians” conference organised by the Edwardian Culture Network and the University of Bristol. My paper was on “Kipling and Tolkien and their ‘mythologies for England’”. This was a wonderful conference with excellent papers and an outstanding keynote lecture by the inimitable Professor Ronald Hutton. What a treat!

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Aurélie Brémont, Kris Swank and Andrew Higgins talking about Tolkien’s Celtic sources at IMC Leeds

The second main conference of this academic year – as per the hint above – was the International Medieval Congress at Leeds. I organized two sessions on Tolkien and I gave a paper for a third session. My first Tolkien session focused on “things Celtic” and was aimed specifically at early career researchers who contributed exciting new work in Tolkien studies. Aurélie Brémont and Kris Swank tackled Tolkien’s Irish sources, especially the immram genre, while Andrew Higgins talked about Tolkien’s earliest uses of the Welsh language.

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Speaking at the “new” Tolkien session together with Professor Nick Groom and Dr Mark Atherton (chaired by Dr Gerard Hynes) at IMC Leeds

My second Tolkien session was a roundtable discussion with Professor Nick Groom, Dr Mark Atherton and myself: we discussed “new” Tolkien publications, focusing mainly on The Fall of Arthur and Tolkien’s Beowulf translation and commentary.

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Paper on: “‘Celtic’ Myth and Celticity in Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain” at IMC Leeds

My paper was given for a different session, organized by the Tales after Tolkien Society. I talked about Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, particularly his use of dubious “Celtic” sources and his construction of a sense of “Celticity” which is at odds with modern scholarship. This paper was part of my research for the book I am working on at the moment.

Leeds was generally wonderful – lots of brilliant sessions, many friends and colleagues to catch up with, lots of medieval crafts and re-enactments, and an impressive book fair. I was particularly chuffed to buy a very affordable copy of the late Professor Rachel Bromwich’s edition of Trioedd Ynys Prydein: The Triads of the Island of Britain – a book that I previously hadn’t been able to find for less than £200 anywhere!

A full posting on the Leeds sessions I was involved in can be found here. Also, for another, comprehensive blog post by Gerard Hynes (who kindly chaired the roundtable discussion I organized) see here.

Meanwhile, all sorts of other things have happened. I have reviewed the newspapers for BBC Radio Wales a couple of times; I read an extract from The Lord of the Rings for Tolkien Reading Day 2015 (this year’s theme was ‘friendship’); and my work was featured in Anna Smol’s blog as part of her “Talks on Tolkien” series.

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My article in The Conversation for the 150th publication anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

Also, I authored a new article for The Conversation on the occasion of the 150th publication anniversary of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, focusing on the book’s appeal and its openness to interpretation: “After 150 years, we still haven’t solved the puzzle of Alice in Wonderland”.

Last but not least, the open access Journal of Tolkien Research, for which I sit on the editorial board, had its first articles and book reviews published. Remember, these are peer-reviewed publications that you can access free of charge! Here are the titles and links you need:

Articles:

Book Reviews

And – before I close – a look ahead:

  • I am off to Oxonmoot in September, to give a paper on construction of childhood in Tolkien and meet friends and colleagues, of course! Drop me a line if you’ll be there!
  • Also, Kalamazoo and Leeds deadlines are coming up, so watch this space for potential sessions and papers for next May and July respectively!