01 June 2016

Wicked Bookish, or, Were the Books I Read as a Child Bad for Me?

As far back as I can remember I was a wicked bookish lad, devouring tales as hungrily as a drowning man gasps for air. The inner truths that permeate myth always moved me, even when I could not grasp them, even when I was only old enough to suspect that more lay between the hero and the quest, between the sorrow and the joy, than I could express. I know that this was so, because I quickly lost interest in tales that did no more than relate a series of events.  I still do. There must be something in the tale that speaks of life, the universe, and everything. But that's often not as grandiose as it sounds. It simply must speak of us and the dreams that are made on us.  Nor does it even matter if we cannot articulate these things. It is enough that we feel them.

So when I was a child, with all my road before me, every trip to a library or bookstore was a quest for a kind of Sangraal, as my mind strove to look over the horizons of my childish world and into the great mystery of the time before my birth.  I read every children's book I could find on the Greeks, Romans, Egyptians and their myths. I read any number of books for little boys on King Arthur and his knights. I made my aunt play the original Broadway cast album to Camelot at least once a week. She was probably sorry she'd bought it, if that's even possible.  I made my grandmother tell me stories of fairies and banshees over and over again.  When I was in fourth grade, I somehow came by a copy of Bullfinch's Mythology.  I read it several times before going where it led me, straight to The Iliad, The Odyssey, The Aeneid, The Song of Roland, to Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, to El Cid, the Norse Gods, and Beowulf. It was a special moment indeed when my fifth grade teacher refused, at first, to accept a book report I had written on Le Morte D'Arthur, because she could not believe I had actually read it. In all of these tales, there was that something which spoke of us.

No one who reads this blog will be surprised to read that just a year after Le Morte D'Arthur I found myself enchanted by The Lord of the Rings.

Wicked bookish, as I said.

So, why am I telling you this? Well several weeks ago, Graeme Whiting, the headmaster of a school in the UK, posted online a short essay entitled 'The Imagination of the Child'.  In it he stressed how sensitive the minds of children are, and the care with which their parents and teachers must act if they wish to protect the children from negative influences. So far, so good, I guess. I can't really criticize this position: children are sensitive; they need protection.  But setting out such a proposition is the easy part. Many would say -- indeed have said -- that in his efforts to identify some of the influences from which we must guard children, and the means by which we should do so, Mr Whiting went off the rails:
I stand for the old-fashioned values of traditional literature, classical poetry, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Dickens, Shakespearean plays, and the great writers who will still be read in future years by those children whose parents adopt a protective attitude towards ensuring that dark, demonic literature, carefully sprinkled with ideas of magic, of control and of ghostly and frightening stories that will cause the children who read them to seek for ever more sensational things to add to those they have already been exposed to. What then of their subconscious minds? What then of the minds of children whose parents couldn’t give the time to look closely at childhood; the sensitive period of the development of every human being? Where will this addiction to unacceptable literature lead? 
I want children to read literature that is conducive to their age and leave those mystical and frightening texts for when they can discern reality, and when they have first learned to love beauty. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, and Terry Pratchett, to mention only a few of the modern world’s ‘must-haves’, contain deeply insensitive and addictive material which I am certain encourages difficult behaviour in children; yet they can be bought without a special licence, and can damage the sensitive subconscious brains of young children, many of whom may be added to the current statistics of mentally ill young children. For young adults, this literature, when it can be understood for what it is, is the choice of many!
Buying sensational books is like feeding your child with spoons of added sugar, heaps of it, and when the child becomes addicted it will seek more and more, which if related to books, fills the bank vaults of those who write un-sensitive books for young children!
That first sentence alone is quite an experience. It begins stodgily enough, but if the authors and types of literature of which Mr Whiting approves are stodgy, so be it. I like everyone he recommends. But things take a strange turn with 'dark, demonic literature.' What starts out sounding like Digory Kirke ('It's all in Plato, all in Plato: Bless me, what do they teach them at these schools?') ends up like a YouTube rant about the End Times and the Satanic Forces arrayed against us. For a man who thinks he's read all the right books, he appears not to have profited much by them. By this I mean they seem to have closed his mind rather than opening it, to judge by his later statement that he 'felt that by the age of thirty [he] had read all the books he wanted to read'. And I'll leave it at that. I'm not here to attack Mr Whiting. Lots of people have already done that, and it's all too easy to pick apart someone's sentences and censure them from afar.

Now I can't offer an informed opinion on The Hunger Games, since I've neither read the books nor seen the films. My knowledge of Harry Potter is also small compared to that of many I know, none of whom, as far as I can tell, have turned out badly because of early exposure to the boy who lived. As for Terry Pratchett, I've read a dozen or so of his novels and haven't felt compelled to attend a Black Mass, not even once.

On the other hand, George R. R. Martin.

His works are something else entirely.  While I wouldn't go quite so far as to call A Song of Ice and Fire 'demonic', I can only agree that it is very, very dark. I am pretty sure I wouldn't let children in grade school, if I had any, watch the HBO series. The books would be a tougher call, for conflicting reasons. With one exception, my parents never forbade me any book. For that I have always been grateful, though my choice of books may have made it easier for them to be so lenient. (I somehow can't see my parents letting me read Bukowski at ten years old.) But books engage the imagination so much more actively and completely than films do (at least as I experience them), and Martin's books are raw, brutal, and full of cruelty. Even if, as Martin has been quoted to say, his tale will have a bittersweet ending in the manner of Tolkien, what will have gone before will (to judge by the first five novels) be so dire and hopeless that the reader, whether adult or child, will come to the end more a Frodo than a Sam.

To be fair, I was an adult when these books came out.  But the first time I read The Lord of the Rings I was eleven, precisely the age Mr Whiting is talking about, still at least three years shy, as he claims, of having 'a thinking brain'. And there were indeed 'demonic' forces at work in the story. The Black Riders were creatures of horror, cut off from all light and life, undead slaves of the Ring; and Sauron, their master, was even worse, especially when 'seen' in the Mirror of Galadriel or glimpsed briefly and indirectly through a terrified Pippin's eyes. And Mordor, teeming with orcs and ash heaps, was clearly a land of dark, Satanic mills. 

Not quite the Eye, but appropriate to our topic.

But for every evil there was an opposite and apposite good, and often more than one. For Mordor there was The Shire, Rivendell, and Lothlórien. For the Black Riders there was shining Glorfindel, who puts them to flight; and, more fatally for their Captain, there was the pair who became heroes by force of love and courage despite the unheroic roles assigned them by stature and gender. Against Sauron himself we found Gandalf and Galadriel, who rejected the power of the Ring when it was offered to them, one of whom sacrificed himself, and the other the land she loved, for the sake of defeating evil. More subtly, though, and if we were paying attention, we recognized the hand of God (Eru) in all the references to 'chance' scattered throughout the work, almost never without qualification. Even Frodo's failure to complete the quest on his own strength bore witness to 'chance if chance you call it' (FR 1.vii.126), since it was 'more than chance' (FR 1.iii.84) that led Bilbo to Gollum, to the Ring, and most importantly of all to pity (FR 1.ii.59).[1] 

So far from being damaged in my unthinking brain by all this, I was uplifted in my soul by 'Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief' (Tolkien, OFS para. 99).  I did not know these words for it then any more than I knew anything of grief at eleven, but it touched my heart and taught it; and in after years, many of which were very dark, its depictions of love, courage, endurance, and nobility gave me something to hold onto in my mind.  The Lord of the Rings was hardly the only book to teach me these lessons, both in childhood and now, well after the age of thirty.  My reading would have been very narrow indeed if it were. Perhaps it's a failure of my own imagination that I cannot see how any literate person who has actually read The Lord of the Rings while awake can see in it only darkness and demonic forces that endanger the minds of children. Or perhaps, as Sam says to Faramir, stating what amounts to a general truth about Faërie itself: 'It strikes me that folk takes their peril with them into Lórien, and finds it there because they've brought it' (TT 4.v.680).

Now those words might seem a good place to end, but I think that would be shortsighted. Words can harm and words can heal. Thus there will be books that are inappropriate for children. I just cannot see The Lord of the Rings as one of them.

Still, if I am going to be wicked in any one thing, let me be wicked bookish.

A wholly extraneous image. I just like it.


[1] On Frodo's 'failure', see Tolkien, Letters no. 181.


  1. N.D. Wilson is good on this topic:

    Even Terry Pratchett, who was an atheist, recognized the importance of the triumph of good: "You’re allowed to grant people into the darkness, but you must allow them to come out again."

  2. That's a terrific article, very practical, down to earth, sensible, and not pretentious. Thank you. I remember reading similar ideas many years ago in, I think, Bettelheim's "The Uses of Enchantment."

  3. It's all of a piece with GKC's oft-quoted maxim on dragons. Andrew Peterson (author of the Wingfeather Saga) has good things to say too: