An Ambivalent Text: Chayan Samaddar
I heard that Children’s Literature was ’Impossible’, I heard it was an amorphous entity, I heard that there was no readily definable body of Children’s Literature any more than there is something that could be clearly labeled as Adult’s Literature. And, after going through Keneth Graham’s ‘The Wind in the Willows’ a couple of days back I am inclined to agree with everything I have heard. If this is Children’s Literature then William Golding’s ‘The Lord of the Flies’ should fall into the same category as well. However, this deeply ambivalent book has been dubbed as one of the undisputed classics in the field of Children’s Literature since its publication in 1908.
Apparently, this is an animal story: a series of misadventures by Mole, Rat, Badger and the irrepressible Toad. There is fun,frolic and burlesque. There is no sex or violence. Therefore, it must be a children’s book. What else can it be? But, the very animals make one uneasy. They do not come across as animals at all. For all their superficial fur there is nothing ‘cute’ about the animals. Mole is a respectable householder, Badger is a country squire, Rat is a gentleman of leisure not much unlike Bertram Wooster and Toad is a moneyed land owner. This is a world of grown-ups with very grown up preoccupations. And what about those slow moving chapters like ‘DulceDomum’ or ‘The Piper at the Gates of Dawn’? How can a child ever identify with them?
One cursory glance at the Gates of Dawn would suffice to prove that we are in the midst of a Wordsworthian world. “A wide half circle of foam and glinting lights and shining shoulders of green water, the great weir closed the backwater from bank to bank, troubled all the quiet surface with twirling eddies and floating foam streaks and deadened all other sounds with its solemn and soothing rumble” .The language is strongly evocative of The Prelude! Then again, if one takes a look at the DulceDomum chapter he is certain to feel that here is an assemblage of fond emotional responses to the world of Reading : there are resonances of Wordsworth and Shelley, echoes of Charles Dickens. Here Mole asks Rat to make a play all but himself and dares him to act as mice are natural actors. It does not matter that he gets tongue tied and cannot perform. What matters is that Grahame evokes the enchantment of theatre, the seduction of role playing, the world of The Master of Shadows: William Shakespeare. But the Specter is contained almost as soon as it is raised for such histrionics has no place in the putatively domestic fantasy of ‘savory comfort’.
This very longing for comfort brings to the fore a clash between two cultures. The Edwardian England and the stable Victorian World the author was brought up in. It is very easy to see that a fear of change permeates the book. One is almost forbidden to break out into the dangerous Wide World. And if anyone does break out, they are punished (symbolized by the Mole’s terror in the Wild Wood ) or regarded as bad (Toad is put behind the bars by the Law as well as locked away by his friends). It is not difficult to sense the author’s anxiety about the noisy, speedy, automobiles encroaching on the bucolic countryside and destroying the traditional ways of life, the growing strident voice of the working class and the recognition of women’s place in the society. For this reason Toad Hall is reclaimed by the forces of conventionalism, the deviant Toad is frowned upon and any reference to women is either derisive or condescending. Substituting sex with food here an anxious Englishman who fears women power tries to retreat into a rustic upper middle class idyll where all male bonding reigns supreme.
However, all said and done, nobody can gainsay this book’s appeal to children. Despite all the nuances a body of children did enjoy it across generations. Still does, as a matter of fact. The reason may be the farce, the burlesque or the image of Toad as an archetypal trickster. It can be a number of things which brings us back to square one. We cannot but resign ourselves to the fact that Great Literature knows no boundaries and resonating with a plethora of complex emotions can captivate just anybody.
Acknowledgement: 1) Children’s Literature—Peter Hunt
2) Children’s Literature: A Very Short Introduction —Kimberley Reynolds.
3) Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter—Seth Lerer.
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