Media

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 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!

Tolkien and the Welsh language (and other news)

I had hoped to post more often on this blog, but this term has been unusually busy. There have been a lot of great opportunities and many exciting projects are in the pipeline, but time has flown and here we are, just before Christmas, with no blog post since the summer! I’ve been more active on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn – the necessity for brevity required in social media has helped! Here’s a quick catch-up, then, and some thoughts and musings on my research and other activities this term.

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Interviewed by John Rhys-Davies for the BBC iWonder Guide on Tolkien and World War I

 

First of all, I was delighted to work with the BBC last summer to film two iWonder online guides on J.R.R. Tolkien. The first one, released in September, was on Tolkien’s experience of World War I and how it may have influenced The Lord of the Rings. I was interviewed by John Rhys-Davies (who played Gimli in The Lord of the Rings film trilogy) about whether The Lord of the Rings can be considered as an allegory of WWI. This short video forms Part 5 of the iWonder guide, which was one of a series of similar online guides produced to commemorate the centenary of WWI.

How was The Lord of the Rings influenced by World War One?

 

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Presenting the BBC iWonder guide on Tolkien and the Welsh language

The second guide, which I presented, was filmed last July in a number of locations in Wales. Fittingly it focuses on Tolkien and the Welsh language – his love of Welsh, his use of Welsh in the construction of Sindarin (one of the languages of the Elves), and the Welsh place-names in the Shire. This iWonder guide has just been released today and I am thrilled with how it’s has all come together! Readers who may want to know more about Tolkien’s ‘Celtic’ inspirations (Welsh and Irish) can access my articles under Publications.

Why do the Elves in The Hobbit sound Welsh?

 

During the last few months I also reviewed two of Tolkien’s recently published books (well, one and a third, to be precise!). The first is a review of Tolkien’s The Fall of Arthur (2013) for Gramarye: The Journal of the Sussex Centre for Folklore, Fairy Tales and Fantasy. My review is aimed at both Tolkien specialists as well as scholars in the more general fields of fantasy literature, folklore, etc. The second is part of a joint review by a number of Tolkien scholars of Tolkien’s Beowulf translation (2014). My bit is a review of “Sellic Spell”, Tolkien’s attempt to ‘reconstruct’ the Anglo-Saxon folktale that may have inspired motifs and the wondrous elements in Beowulf. This collective review will be published soon in Mallorn, the journal of the Tolkien Society.

Last but not least, I also contributed a piece to The Conversation, an independent source of news and views sourced from the academic and research community. My article was titled: “Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree to hit the screen in latest bid to aim fantasy at grown-ups” and offered views on the recent success of cinematic adaptations of classic children’s fantasy.