A Literary Patrimony
“Bread” came alive one afternoon in our nursery. Having just read Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird together, my father, my sisters, and I created a dramatization of it in which the character “Bread” assumed a life of his own. In this play, two children wander through such magical scenes as the palace of night seeking happiness, symbolized by the Blue Bird. They eventually find contentment in their own home. I recall being rather perplexed by this conclusion. Of course, one implication is that perhaps happiness cannot be pursued, or that it comes from within. Naturally enough, I had not then articulated any analysis of the story, nor perhaps should I have, for the vivacious and perceptive story in itself was sufficiently appealing. The Blue Bird provokes our moral imaginations—possibly to a consideration of happiness, but more probably to an awareness of creatureliness and a solicitude for the two children.
Night after night my father read aloud to us, all of us delighted by the stories. Sometimes we listened for hours. Occasionally, however, he was even more eager to read than we were inclined to listen: when we fell asleep, we were carried up the wooden hill—the stairs—to the land of nod. Always willing to read aloud, he introduced us to the marvels of good literature.
A cherisher of stories, Russell Kirk perceives their significance: they feed man’s imagination, not that they intend to do so. While they are primarily to entertain, good stories simultaneously embody an understanding or a glimpse of truth. In conveying wisdom and providing insight, they reveal what it means to be human.
Of the many books that my father read to us, I cannot recall much of their plots or even many of their names, but I retain a vague sense of charmed awe and perhaps some benefit from their cumulative impact. In this respect, Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland naturally springs to mind. In that topsy-turvy, deliciously surprising wonderland, Alice maintains her common-sensical composure—despite the Queen’s command, “Off with her head!” We all are astounded by the bizarre events, and admire Alice immensely. With Alice, we return to the real world, full of vivid memories, wiser after our strange adventure, and perhaps attentive to proportion, having witnessed the comical effects of disproportion. (Once, this book also was dramatized in our house—at a St. Valentine’s Day costume party, with my father as the Cheshire Cat, my mother as the Queen of Hearts, my fortunate sister Monica as Alice, and me as the white rabbit, trained by my mother to repeat “I’m late, I’m late, for a very important date!” to our guests.)
Randomly selecting a few more books from our readings, I think of George MacDonald’s The Princess and Curdie, The Snow Queen by Hans Christian Andersen, and E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet. In all of these stories, likeable, courageous children are the protagonists, and sometimes must make unalterable decisions. Trusty Curdie confronts formidable dangers; the little girl withstands the evil Snow Queen. The six Bastable children—very English, very sensible, and very funny—discover that their carpet possesses magical powers, producing such extraordinary results as the appearance of a thousand Persian cats. Through these fantastic episodes, we experience an element of mystery, and discover the nature of character: Curdie’s honesty and the princess’s kind wisdom shine through, while the glistening Snow Queen is exposed for the deceiver she is. These adventures are not comfortable journeys; rather, at times the hero or heroine is nearly overwhelmed.
As my father observed regarding his own youthful readings, “I did learn much about the reality of human jealousy and ambition, ingenuity and fortitude, selfishness and charity, gloom and hope. I became aware that my own little physical environment was something local and not absolute . . . I acquired some concept of abiding truths. . . .” In one of his favorite children’s stories, John Ruskin’s The King of the Golden River, the proud, cruel brothers Hans and Schwartz are transformed into stones in the river, while selfless little Gluck is rewarded abundantly. We are granted satisfaction with the justice of the conclusion. Although good literature is not necessarily morally instructive, by incorporating norms, standards of behavior, it provides measurement, familiarity with the diversity of human character and circumstance, and material for reflection.
Entering the realm of the fantastic, but often entirely real and detailed, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings provide the best examples of fiction that enlarges our vision. These tales fascinate us and appeal to our ethical consciousness. The affable and straightforward Bilbo, the greedy and loathsome Gollum, the talented, lithe, and mysterious elves, all absorbed in a gripping adventure, evoke powerful images, ones which certainly impressed me. My father also read to us from the five volumes of Mary Norton’s The Borrowers, which narrates the adventures of a miniature family, its members only a few inches in height, as they endure the comical incidents and tribulations which accompany persons of that size. The Borrowers mimic in detailed microcosm the lives of bigger people. Inspired in part by these descriptions, I created my own little people. I built an entire town for them, which soon covered the floor of a small room at home, where I played for hours and years.
Continuing the element of the unusual, most vivid in my mind are the “unconventional” stories of our youth. Struwwelpeter, by Heinrich Hoffman, is the notorious example of this genre. My sister Monica was familiar with the terrors of Struwwelpeter (I do not necessarily recommend the book), whose cover depicts the unkempt Peter with exceedingly long fingernails, and wherein Johnny-Head-in-Air foolishly falls into a river. Then, there is the incident of the tablecloth where disobedient Fidgety Phil insists on tilting his chair back from the dinner table, resulting in its collapse upon him. There is most definitely a sense of responsibility for one’s actions and of justice in the book! The milder Goops, by Gelett Burgess, depicts unmannerly behavior in a more playful and civilized mode.
The classic Pinocchio has won the devotion of generations with the mischief-making and easily misled, but good-hearted, Pinocchio, kind old Geppetto, and the talking Cricket. Yet it is no happy-go-lucky story, for the malevolent and deceptive Fox and Cat are thoroughly destructive, alerting us to the reality of harmful characters. Another traditional favorite, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure island, similarly forewarns us of sinister circumstances, with its mysterious Black Spot.
My father also read us fairy tales, including Arabian Nights, though these remained more to my sister Felicia’s taste than my own. I liked Dick Whittington and His Cat, about a poor boy in London who eventually becomes Lord Mayor; while Monica treasured Gertrude’s Child, about a doll that owns a child. The Secret Garden and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory especially pleased Monica. We all heard the same literature, but different stories sparked our individual imaginations. Although they may have possessed material of universal significance, these books appealed variously to our characters, moved by certain images. Andrea, my youngest sister, liked our father’s own tales most of all, and she drew sketches of their characters. She was always fascinated by the pictures. After all, the illustrations first attracted us to the books and were often what we loved most about them.
Reviving the neglected art of storytelling, my father also invented his own tales. He related these stories as installments beside the fireplace, the traditional place for a community’s stories, developing the characters and plots as he spoke. We followed “Hew and His Knife,” “The Elusive Earl,” and another tale set during the time of the Crusades (but whose name escapes me, as these oral narrations were never recorded). Often he would conclude an episode with the protagonists caught in a perilous predicament—surrounded by bandits or the like—which on one occasion so infuriated us that we demanded that he “get those children home to their momma.” Laughing, he appeased us with a more satisfactory conclusion.
These stories acted reciprocally upon our household. Clinton, a genuine hobo whom we took in, appeared frequently in my father’s tales, even assuming heroic roles—though Clinton himself denied being capable of any such self-endangering actions. My father was able, as he has written in another context, “to weave into the intricate tapestry of his romance certain little insignificant real happenings, making them important threads in his work.” Unfortunately, my sister Monica soon learned to develop her own stories: one afternoon when we were supposed to be cleaning our room, Monica cleverly proposed that if I cleaned the room, she would tell me a story. Innocently agreeable, I listened to her tale of a horrible wolf (suspiciously similar to that in “Red Riding Hood”), which culminated in the malicious words, “And, Cecilia, the Wolf is Everywhere!”—causing me to shriek with terror. My parents, who had been eavesdropping, burst into laughter.
Those fireside tales were amazing and extraordinary. During the telling of “The Elusive Earl,” I observed to my father that most of his characters were evil (which also amused him); but I must admit that the hero or heroine, despite any occasional suspicion or eclipse, invariably emerges as a magnanimous person. What impressed me most about these tales was simply that they existed at all, that he was able to create them, conjuring them up out of nothing.
In my father’s written, published fiction, very much for a more mature audience, the characters evidence less felicitous qualities than in his narrations for us. His fiction often considers the eerie, the macabre, and even the diabolic. For the sheer pleasure of their evocative titles, I specify: A Creature of the Twilight, The Surly Sullen Bell, The Princess of All Lands, Lord of the Hollow Dark, Old House of Fear, and “The Invasion of the Church of the Holy Ghost.” A number of Kirk’s short stories, their anecdotes inexplicable, remain enigmas; some, rooted in particular places and chance circumstances, portray harsh spiritual battles beyond time and death. Such haunting works are far removed from the children’s tales, but they share a common element: the appeal to the normative consciousness, touching upon struggles of an ethical nature.
Encouraged by our father to take up our own reading, I began my serious reading at the age of ten. That year, I fell ill and had to hobble about on crutches for six months—which was providential, for I was, for a time, thrown back on books. From the ages of three until seven, my father had been similarly ill, and so his mother constantly read to him. While confined to sedentary activity physically, the health of his mind thrived and became robust. During those early years, he began to form an understanding—even a philosophical habit of mind—and later suspected that he already had been aware of certain truths at that young age, but only recognized them fully when they were expressed years later. He was a precocious child, yet he exhibited the customary love of play in that land of counterpane which has welcomed many of us.
The land of counterpane, a life of the mind, is intriguingly portrayed in Tom’s Midnight Garden, by Philippa Pearce, in which the clock strikes thirteen and Tom enters his garden outside time. This heartwarming book possesses a rather eerie quality, expressing the experience of transcending time. It suggests the “eternal moments” during which time and the timeless coalesce, moments about which my father has spoken and which remind us that man was made for eternity. Those experiences inspire a curiosity that confirms that the world is more than physical matter.
Exploring the land of counterpane, I immersed myself in literature, absorbed by the stories. John Masefield’s Martin Hyde: The Duke’s Messenger, a historical romance, became my first serious book. After that, I read a number of Masefield sea novels, including two volumes my father had long promised me, though I was skeptical, with the curious titles Dead Ned and Live and Kicking Ned. Although he had attempted to read Hendrik Van Loon’s The Story of Mankind and other historical works to us, his efforts were unsuccessful: we deserted him in favor of more conventional pursuits (namely, the neighbor’s television; we did not have one of our own). Once attracted to historical novels, though, I read avidly: the medieval Polish novel The Blacksmith of Vilno, by Eric Kelly; The Splendid Spur by Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch; Willa Cather’s Death Comes for the Archbishop and Shadows on the Rock; Joan Aiken’s Black Hearts in Battersea, set in early nineteenth-century London; Scott O’Dell’s Island of the Blue Dolphins, of an Indian girl alone on an island; and Lloyd Alexander’s five-volume Prydain Chronicles, a romance based on Welsh legends. Also I read the strange H. Rider Haggard novel She, which is set deep in the African jungle where the inhabitants place pots on the heads of strangers and which concerns a mysterious and deathless Queen called by her subjects “She-who-must-be-obeyed”—a nickname my father and I adopted for my mother. My favorite was The Boy with the Bronze Axe, by Kathleen Fidler, set in a Stone-Age village in the Orkneys; today the remains of that actual village have been exposed by the winds.
By sparking my imagination through fairy tales, and by providing perspective and reason through historical novels, my father imparted a cultural legacy to me. For through the printed word, the wisdom of generations transcends the “provincialism of time” and speaks to us across the ages and the oceans. We acquire an understanding of tradition through the “eternal contract” of the generations, of the immediate and the timeless. The record of our collective and real stories, historical literature reveals the enduring qualities of human nature.
Children’s literature especially has a universal appeal and, we discovered, can transmit an imaginative, normative consciousness. As the aging Henry Ryecroft wrote, literature is “food for the soul of man.”
Cecilia Kirk Nelson was at the time of writing program director at the International Institute for Culture, outside Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A version of this essay was published in The Unbought Grace of Life: Essays in Honor of Russell Kirk, edited by James Person.
Posted: November 13, 2011 in Best of the Bookman.