Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Posts Tagged ‘Don Quixote

Zen and the Art of Pippi Longstocking

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Pippi Longstocking

Note: I’m taking a few days off for the holidays, so I’ll be republishing some of my favorite pieces from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on August 8, 2016.

Last summer, at my local library, I checked out a copy of Pippi Moves In! by Astrid Lindgren and Ingrid Vang Nyman, the first English-language collection of their comic strip featuring Pippi Longstocking. These strips were originally published in the Swedish children’s magazine Humpty Dumpty in the late fifties, a decade after Lindgren’s classic novels first appeared, and although they caught my eye mostly because I hoped they would amuse my daughter, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them since. In the first strip, we’re introduced to a pair of ordinary children, Tommy and Annika, who live next door to an empty house in the village of Villa Villekulla: “It’s so stupid that nobody lives there,” Annika says. One night, Pippi Longstocking moves in, and when we first see her, she’s casually lifting a horse over her head. (“Nobody can lift a horse!” Annika exclaims. “I can,” Pippi casually replies.) “Tommy and Annika don’t know it yet,” the narrator informs us, “but she’s the strongest in the world.” Pippi lives by herself, with a suitcase of gold coins left by her absent father, and she immediately befriends the two kids, giving them presents—including “a nice dagger with a mother-of-pearl hilt” for Tommy—before telling them to come back to visit her again soon. The ensuing stories are charming in themselves, but the more I read them, the deeper they seem. In fact, Pippi is nothing less than a perfect example of the life of Zen, as outlined by R.H. Blyth in Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. Zen is notoriously hard to define, and the best you can do is learn to recognize it, like Judge Potter Stewart said of pornography, when you see it. Then you just point and say: “There it is.”

And there’s a lot of it here. Take Pippi’s two most salient qualities—her strength and her wealth. She’s the strongest girl in the world, but she never resorts to violence for its own sake, and she only uses her strength to gently reprimand unlikable adults, like the man who is beating his horse. (“Keep out of it,” the man says, “or else I might beat you too.” Pippi quietly breaks his stick and responds: “That won’t happen, because your stick is broken.”) Similarly, she blithely observes that she’s “as rich as a troll,” but she just uses her money to buy an entire store’s worth of candy to share with all the kids in the village. In other words, she has the kind of unthinking trust in her own limitless resources that only a child, or a Zen adept, possesses: she gives freely of everything, because she takes it for granted, and she knows that there’s plenty more where that came from. This circles back around to the paradoxical freedom that comes from voluntary simplicity and powerlessness, which become identical, in their inward sense of liberation, to the thoughtless wealth and strength that Pippi possesses. In fact, Pippi works hard, and she’s always absorbed in what she’s doing. She’s a “thing-searcher” who gets to keep whatever she finds on the ground, including “gold nuggets and ostrich feathers and dead rats and tiny little screws and things like that,” and she has to be dissuaded from laying claim to a drunk sleeping in a field, although she’s bothered by the thought that someone else will come along to swipe him. Pippi concludes: “Just think how stupid people are. They are carpenters and shoemakers and chimneysweeps, but no one is ever a thing-searcher. And it’s such a great job.”

Pippi Longstocking

Pippi’s wisdom has many of the qualities of a Zen koan, with Tommy and Annika serving as her bewildered novices. When Annika asks Pippi why she keeps a horse on her porch, Pippi replies: “Well, he wouldn’t be happy in the living room, and he’d just get in the way in the kitchen.” After being told that she can’t mix pancake batter with a bath brush, Pippi says: “Of course I can!” When she finds a large tin can, she puts it on her head to pretend that it’s the middle of the night, and she promptly tumbles over a fence. Sitting up, she says: “Imagine if I wasn’t wearing this can! I might have fallen on my face and really hurt myself.” When a teacher asks why she’s drawing on the floor instead of on paper, she sensibly responds that it’s the only way she’ll have room to draw her entire horse, and then she lies down for a nap. (As Blyth tells us: “That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired.”) Then there’s this classic exchange, after Pippi and her friends have gotten shipwrecked for fun on an island in the lake, and she dictates a message in a bottle:

Pippi: “Here’s what to write: ‘Help us before we perish. We’ve been pining away for two days on this island without any snuff.’”
Tommy: “I can’t write that!”
Pippi: “Why not? We don’t have any snuff, do we?”
Annika: “No, but we don’t use snuff.”
Pippi: “Exactly. That’s why we don’t have any. Just write what I said.”

I don’t think Lindgren was out to create anything more than wonderful entertainment, but whenever an author manages to write honestly and unsentimentally from a child’s point of view, while fully honoring the logic of childhood, the result is a glimpse into the heart of Zen. It’s why we’re told that we have to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. We see this in the Alice books, and in the Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist, of whom Blyth observes: “What seems to be at first impudence rises with an influx of energy into an identification of himself with the whole machinery of the Law.” But Pippi’s nearest relative is Don Quixote. As Blyth writes: “[Don Quixote] is in a state of muga, a state in which he himself is nothing, he seeks nothing for himself, his personality is always dissolved in the valor and glory of the action itself.” You could say much the same about Pippi, except that she succeeds where Don Quixote fails, even as they both embody what Blyth calls “entire engrossment, conscious and unconscious, in what one is doing.” (Blyth adds sadly: “We ourselves, as we read the book, have an underlying sense of shame that our lives are directed to the acquisition of all the things Don Quixote so rightly despised.”) And we need these qualities now more than ever. As it happens, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, which was out of print for decades, was reissued last year in an affordable paperback edition, and I’d encourage everyone to get a copy: it’s close to my favorite book in the world, and it wouldn’t make a bad present for a loved one, either. But you might do just as well if you only bought Pippi Moves In!

The white rabbit objective

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The White Rabbit by John Tenniel

Note: I’m taking the day off, so I’m republishing a piece from earlier in this blog’s run. This post originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on November 24, 2015.

On July 4, 1862, the Reverends Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and Robinson Duckworth rowed a boat up the Thames with the three Liddell sisters, Lorina, Alice, and Edith. Here’s Dodgson’s own account of what took place that afternoon:

Many a day had we rowed together on that quiet stream—the three little maidens and I—and many a fairy tale had been extemporized for their benefit—whether it were at times when the narrator was “i’ the vein,” and fancies unsought came crowding thick upon him, or at times when the jaded Muse was goaded into action, and plodded meekly on, more because she had to say something than that she had something to say—yet none of these many tales got written down: they lived and died, like summer midges, each in its own golden afternoon until there came a day when, as it chanced, one of my little listeners petitioned that the tale might be written out for her.

The result was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, of which the computer scientist Alan Perlis once said: “The best book on programming for the layman is Alice in Wonderland, but that’s because it’s the best book on anything for the layman.”

Today, however, I’d like to focus on the stories that weren’t written down. We have Dodgson’s word that he often extemporized tales to Alice and her sisters, but the vast majority were forgotten as soon as they were told. What set this one apart? You could point to any number of possible factors, but I’d like to nominate one element that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves: the White Rabbit. Dodgson himself hints that the rabbit played an important role in the story’s composition: “That was many a year ago, but I distinctly remember, now as I write, how, in a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-lore, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole to begin with, without the least idea what was to happen afterwards.” When we look back at the original story, it’s striking how quickly it gets down to business: the rabbit appears in the second paragraph, and Alice sets after it in the fourth, and by then, we’re off and running. And what the rabbit provides is a narrative thread, in the form of Alice’s curiosity about it, that allows Dodgson—or his alter ego, Lewis Carroll—to introduce a series of disconnected episodes. He doesn’t emphasize the rabbit unduly: in practice, he gently reintroduces it once every other chapter or so, whenever the story needs a little nudge. And the result is as pure an example as I know of the principle that every story should be structured as a series of objectives, and that the best way to sustain the reader’s interest, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, is to have the protagonist want something right away.

Illustration by John Tenniel for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This may seem like a rather clinical way to look at Alice, but it’s also a trick that every oral storyteller knows. The other great example here is Winnie-the-Pooh, which emerged from the stories that A.A. Milne told to his son. When you browse through the books, you can’t help but notice how the most memorable chapters are all structured around a single concrete objective: Pooh wants to get some honey, or to find Eeyore’s tail, or to figure out what Tigger likes best. Pooh himself is hardly a model of a driven protagonist, but for a bear of very little brain, he knows what he wants. And when I tell my improvised stories about John the Pig to my own daughter, I’ve learned how useful it can be to follow “Once upon a time there was…” immediately with “And he wanted…” It’s a courtesy both to the listener and the teller: the former gets something to pique her interest, while the latter has a narrative framework on which he can fall back whenever his invention starts to flag. If you know what the protagonist wants, you usually have a rough idea of what comes next. And it often makes the difference between a story worth remembering and one that evaporates before your eyes. (On a similar note, I went through a brief period of experimentation with Story Cubes, which consist of nine prepackaged dice printed with images—a clock, a magic wand, a man with a parachute—designed to encourage the same kind of storytelling: you toss the dice and try to come up with a plot that connects the nine random pictures. And your chances of succeeding are much better if you introduce the words “And he wanted…” as soon as possible.)

This becomes even more clear when we compare Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its sequel. Readers may prefer one or the other, and I actually think that Through the Looking-Glass is by far the greater book. (Not surprisingly, it has played a significant role in my own life: my first professional publication ever, the novelette “Inversus,” was an extended homage, and my novel The Icon Thief ends with the image, which I lifted directly from Carroll, of a pawn making it to the other end of the board.) But it’s also emphatically a written novel. Instead of the clean, linear chase after the White Rabbit, we have the imaginary chess game, which is wonderful, but could hardly be invented on the spur of the moment. Unlike its predecessor, Looking-Glass takes its time to get going: it opens with a sleepy scene of Alice curled up by the fireplace in midwinter, and she doesn’t enter the looking-glass world for several pages. Even when she’s on the other side, she does little more than look around at first, and her objective, when it finally appears, is fairly abstract—she wants to become a queen. The result bears the same relation to the previous installment as the second half of Don Quixote does to the first: it’s a richer, more mature work, written after its characters had already become famous, but it lacks some of the charm of the original. Each story bears the mark of its origins: one in a boat in a lazy day on the Thames, the other in the study of an Oxford mathematician. And if Carroll had started with Looking-Glass rather than Wonderland, the story might have been forgotten at once. I wouldn’t want to live without either, but we have the White Rabbit to thank for both.

Zen and the art of survival

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R.H. Blyth

It’s probably too late to buy it as a Christmas gift, but I wanted to mention that Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics by R.H. Blyth, one of my favorite books, is now available in an affordable paperback edition from the Catholic publisher Angelico Press, after being out of print for decades. I’ve said before that if I could own just one book that had to fit in a backpack, it would be Blyth, and if there’s any time in which we could use his insights, it’s now. It’s a series of essays on such subjects as “Death,” “Children,” “Poverty,” and “Non-Attachment”—the last of which is so important that it gets four chapters to itself—and Blyth makes his points using copious quotations, anecdotes, and literary illustrations. His tone is captured by an aside toward the beginning:

I remember when I began to attend lectures, at a Zen temple…I was surprised to find that there were no lofty spiritual truths enunciated at all. Two things stuck in my head, because they were repeated so often, and with such gusto. One of them, emphasized with extreme vigor, was that you must not smoke a cigarette while making water. The other was that when somebody calls you (in Japanese, “Oi!”) you must answer (“Hai!”) at once, without hesitation. When we compare this to the usual Christian exhortatory sermon, we cannot help being struck by the difference.

Blyth continues: “I myself heard the ‘Oi!’ ‘Hai!’ so many times that I began to wait for it and look on it as a kind of joke, and as soon as I did this, I began to see a light, or ‘get warm’ as the children say. It is like the grooves of launching. Release the blocks and the ship moves.” Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics is a collection of grooves. It’s both the best anthology of poetry I know and a source of advice and ideas that are constantly rattling around in my brain:

That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired. But to do such simple things properly is really the most difficult thing in the world.

We ourselves, as we read [Don Quixote], have an underlying sense of shame that our lives are directed to the acquisition of all the things Don Quixote so rightly despised.

Sometimes the inculcation of poverty may be a concession to human weakness, which finds the golden mean so difficult. Poverty then appears as a kind of universal Prohibition…Poverty appears again as a form of safety first, a kind of fire insurance by burning down the house.

Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics

What Blyth describes isn’t Zen, exactly, and if you’re looking for a more approachable introduction, you’re probably better off going with Blyth’s friend D.T. Suzuki, or maybe Pippi Longstocking. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t take it as a primary text in itself, as channeled through its author’s specific experiences, tastes, and prejudices. To the extent that I have a personal philosophy, however rarely I manage to live up to it, it’s here. And it’s the last chapter, “Shakespeare,” that I’ve been thinking about the most. Blyth believed that Zen could be found in its purest form in poetry, even in doggerel, so it isn’t surprising that he devotes so much space to Shakespeare, who stands with Jesus and Bashō as one of the book’s central figures. On the very last page, Blyth quotes Macduff, who asks, after discovering that his entire family has been murdered: “Did heaven look on, / And would not take their part?” Blyth concludes:

What is the answer to the question? It cannot be given in Yes, or No, because as the question is understood by most people, it has the same form as, “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?” But you may say, “You are only equivocating: answer the question, does Heaven care for us or not?” The answer is the plays of Hamlet, King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, for when we are watching or reading the plays, and even for a short time afterwards, before the glow has died away, we know the answer. But it is not Yes, and it is not No.

This seems about right to me. But the most extraordinary thing about this book is left almost unspoken. In the closing lines of his preface, Blyth thanks his typist, Mrs. Saeko Kobayashi of Toyko, and he ends it with the simple words: “Kanazawa, May 1941.” It’s as evocative, in its own way, as the famous “Trieste-Zurich-Paris, 1914-1921” at the end of Ulysses, which reminds us that the epic of Dublin was written in exile. Blyth was also working in a place and time that couldn’t have seemed less conducive to his subject or its reception, and it was about to get worse. In the preface to his other masterpiece, the four-volume study Haiku, Blyth writes: “Of the great number of Japanese books that I referred to while writing this and the succeeding volumes, hardly any escaped the air raids.” It wasn’t a period in which Japan itself seemed particularly emblematic of the life of Zen, and certainly not one in which most of his intended readers would be receptive to what it had to say. There are times when Blyth, quietly preparing his manuscript as the war raged around him, reminds me of the narrator in Borges’s “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” working on his translation of the Urn Burial while the world as he knows it ends. But that’s how a lot of us feel these days, and the fact that Blyth emerged with his faith in Zen intact consoles me just as much as his book does. I can’t think of a better Christmas present—and even if it’s too late to give it to someone you love, you can always get it for yourself.

Zen and the art of Pippi Longstocking

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Pippi Longstocking

A few weeks ago, I picked up a copy of Pippi Moves In! by Astrid Lindgren and Ingrid Vang Nyman, which is the first English-language collection of the comic strip featuring Pippi Longstocking. The strips were originally published in the Swedish children’s magazine Humpty Dumpty in the late fifties, a decade after Lindgren’s novels appeared, and although they caught my eye mostly because I hoped they would amuse my daughter, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about them since. In the first strip, we’re introduced to a pair of ordinary children, Tommy and Annika, who live next door to an empty house in the village of Villa Villekulla. “It’s so stupid that nobody lives there,” Annika says. One night, Pippi Longstocking moves in, and when we first see her, she’s casually lifting a horse over her head. (“Nobody can lift a horse!” Annika exclaims. “I can,” Pippi replies.) “Tommy and Annika don’t know it yet,” the narrator continues, “but she’s the strongest in the world.” Pippi lives by herself, with a suitcase of gold coins left by her absent father, and she immediately befriends the two kids, giving them presents—including “a nice dagger with a mother-of-pearl hilt” for Tommy—before telling them to come back to visit her again soon. The ensuing stories are charming in themselves, but the more I read them, the deeper they become. In fact, Pippi is nothing less than a perfect example of the life of Zen, as outlined by R.H. Blyth in Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics. Zen is notoriously hard to define, and the best you can do is learn to recognize it, like Judge Potter Stewart said of pornography, when you see it. Then you just point and say: “There it is.”

And there’s a lot of it here. Take Pippi’s two most salient qualities—her strength and her wealth. She’s the strongest girl in the world, but she never resorts to violence for its own sake, and she only uses her strength to gently reprimand unlikable adults, like the man she finds beating his horse. (“Keep out of it,” the man says, “or else I might beat you too.” Pippi quietly breaks his stick over her knees, and replies: “That won’t happen, because your stick is broken.”) Similarly, she blithely observes that she’s “as rich as a troll,” but she just uses her money to buy a store’s worth of candy to share with all the kids in the village. In other words, she has the kind of unthinking trust in her own limitless resources that only a child, or a Zen adept, possesses: she gives freely of everything, because she takes it for granted, and she knows that there’s plenty more where it came from. Freely given, it circles back around to the paradoxical freedom that comes from voluntary poverty and spiritual powerlessness, which become identical, in their inward sense of liberation, to the casual wealth and strength that Pippi possesses. In fact, Pippi works hard, and she’s always absorbed in what she’s doing. She’s a “thing-searcher” who gets to keep whatever she finds on the ground, including “gold nuggets and ostrich feathers and dead rats and tiny little screws and things like that,” and she has to be dissuaded from laying claim to a drunk sleeping in a field, although it bothers her that someone else will come along to swipe him. Pippi concludes: “Just think how stupid people are. They are carpenters and shoemakers and chimneysweeps, but no one is ever a thing-searcher. And it’s such a great job.”

Pippi Longstocking

Pippi’s wisdom has many of the qualities of a Zen koan, with Tommy and Annika as her bewildered novices. When Annika asks why she has a horse on her porch, Pippi replies: “Well, he wouldn’t be happy in the living room, and he’d just get in the way in the kitchen.” After being told that she can’t mix pancake batter with a bath brush, she says: “Of course I can!” When she finds a large tin can, she puts it on her head to pretend that it’s the middle of the night, and then tumbles over a fence. She sits up and says: “Imagine if I wasn’t wearing this can! I might have fallen on my face and really hurt myself.” When a teacher asks why she’s drawing on the floor instead of on paper, she sensibly replies that it’s the only way she’ll have room to draw her entire horse, and then she lies down for a nap. (As Blyth notes: “That is all religion is: eat when you are hungry, sleep when you are tired.”) Then there’s this classic exchange, after Pippi and her friends have gotten shipwrecked for fun on an island in the lake, and she dictates a message in a bottle:

Pippi: “Here’s what to write: ‘Help us before we perish. We’ve been pining away for two days on this island without any snuff.’”
Tommy: “I can’t write that!”
Pippi: “Why not? We don’t have any snuff, do we?”
Annika: “No, but we don’t use snuff.”
Pippi: “Exactly. That’s why we don’t have any. Just write what I said.”

I don’t think Lindgren was out to create anything more than wonderful entertainment, but whenever an author manages to write honestly and unsentimentally from the point of view of a child, and honors the logic of childhood, the result is a glimpse into the heart of Zen: it’s why we’re told that we have to become like little children to enter the kingdom of heaven. We see this in the Alice books, and in the Artful Dodger of Oliver Twist, of whom Blyth observes: “What seems to be at first impudence rises with an influx of energy into an identification of himself with the whole machinery of the Law.” But Pippi’s nearest relative is Don Quixote. As Blyth writes: “[Don Quixote] is in a state of muga, a state in which he himself is nothing, he seeks nothing for himself, his personality is always dissolved in the valor and glory of the action itself.” You could say much the same about Pippi, except that she succeeds where Don Quixote fails, even as they both embody what Blyth calls “entire engrossment, conscious and unconscious, in what one is doing.” (He writes sadly: “We ourselves, as we read the book, have an underlying sense of shame that our lives are directed to the acquisition of all the things Don Quixote so rightly despised.”) As it happens, Zen in English Literature and Oriental Classics, which has been out of print for decades, has recently been reissued at last in an affordable paperback edition, and I’d encourage everyone to get a copy: it’s close to my favorite book in the world. But you would do just as well if you only bought Pippi Moves In!

The White Rabbit objective

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The White Rabbit by John Tenniel

On July 4, 1862, the Reverends Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and Robinson Duckworth rowed a boat up the Thames with the three Liddell sisters, Lorina, Alice, and Edith. Here’s Dodgson’s own account of what took place on that pleasant afternoon:

Many a day had we rowed together on that quiet stream—the three little maidens and I—and many a fairy tale had been extemporized for their benefit—whether it were at times when the narrator was “i’ the vein,” and fancies unsought came crowding thick upon him, or at times when the jaded Muse was goaded into action, and plodded meekly on, more because she had to say something than that she had something to say—yet none of these many tales got written down: they lived and died, like summer midges, each in its own golden afternoon until there came a day when, as it chanced, one of my little listeners petitioned that the tale might be written out for her.

And we all know what happened next—or at least we have no choice but to remember this week, with the deluge of recent coverage surrounding the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Today, however, I’d like to focus on the stories that weren’t written down. We have Dodgson’s word that he often extemporized tales to Alice and her sisters, but the vast majority were forgotten as soon as they were told. What set this one apart? You could point to any number of possible factors, but I’d like to nominate one element that doesn’t always get the credit it deserves: the White Rabbit. Dodgson himself hints that the rabbit played an important role in the story’s composition: “That was many a year ago, but I distinctly remember, now as I write, how, in a desperate attempt to strike out some new line of fairy-lore, I had sent my heroine straight down a rabbit-hole to begin with, without the least idea what was to happen afterwards.” When we look back at the original story, it’s striking how quickly it gets down to business: the rabbit appears in the second paragraph, and Alice sets after it in the fourth, and by then, we’re off and running. And what the rabbit provides is a narrative thread, in the form of Alice’s curiosity about it, that allows Dodgson—or his alter ego, Lewis Carroll—to introduce a series of disconnected episodes. He doesn’t emphasize the rabbit unduly: in practice, he gently reintroduces it once every other chapter or so, whenever the story needs a little nudge. And the result is as pure an example as I know of the principle that every story should be structured as a series of objectives, and that the best way to sustain the reader’s interest, as Kurt Vonnegut put it, is to have the protagonist want something right away.

Illustration by John Tenniel for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland

This may seem like a rather clinical way to look at Alice, but it’s also a trick that every oral storyteller knows. The other great example here is Winnie-the-Pooh, which emerged from the stories that A.A. Milne told to his son. When you browse through the books, you can’t help but notice how the most memorable chapters are all structured around a single concrete objective: Pooh wants to get some honey, or to find Eeyore’s tail, or to figure out what Tigger likes best. Pooh himself is hardly a model of a driven protagonist, but for a bear of very little brain, he knows what he wants. And when I tell my improvised stories about John the Pig to my own daughter, I’ve learned how useful it can be to follow “Once upon a time there was…” immediately with “And he wanted…” It’s a courtesy both to the listener and the teller: the former gets something to pique her interest, while the latter has a narrative framework on which he can fall back whenever his invention starts to flag. If you know what the protagonist wants, you usually have a rough idea of what comes next. And it often makes the difference between a story worth remembering and one that evaporates before your eyes. (On a similar note, I’ve recently begun experimenting with Story Cubes, which consist of nine prepackaged dice printed with images—a clock, a magic wand, a man with a parachute—designed to encourage the same kind of storytelling: you toss the dice and try to come up with a plot that connects the nine random pictures. And your chances of succeeding are much better if you introduce the words “And he wanted…” as soon as possible.)

This becomes even more clear when we compare Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with its sequel. Readers may prefer one or the other, and I actually think that Through the Looking-Glass is by far the greater book. (Not surprisingly, it has played a significant role in my own life: my first professional publication ever, the novelette “Inversus,” was an extended homage, and my novel The Icon Thief ends with the image, which I lifted directly from Carroll, of a pawn making it to the other end of the board.) But it’s also emphatically a written novel. Instead of the clean, linear chase after the White Rabbit, we have the imaginary chess game, which is wonderful, but could hardly be invented on the spur of the moment. Unlike its predecessor, Looking-Glass takes its time to get going: it opens with a sleepy scene of Alice curled up by the fireplace in midwinter, and she doesn’t enter the looking-glass world for several pages. Even when she’s on the other side, she does little more than look around at first, and her objective, when it finally appears, is fairly abstract—she wants to become a queen. The result bears the same relation to the previous installment as the second half of Don Quixote does to the first: it’s a richer, more mature work, written after its characters had already become famous, but it lacks some of the charm of the original. Each story bears the mark of its origins: one in a boat in a lazy day on the Thames, the other in the study of an Oxford mathematician. And if Carroll had started with Looking-Glass rather than Wonderland, the story might have been forgotten at once. I wouldn’t want to live without either, but we have the White Rabbit to thank for both.

Is storytelling kid’s stuff?

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John Tenniel's illustration of the Red Queen

Over the last few months, I’ve been spending a lot of time with my daughter at the main branch of the Oak Park Public Library. When you’re a full-time dad, you’re constantly in search of places where your child can romp happily for half an hour without continuous supervision, and our library fills that need admirably: it’s full of physical books, toys, activities, and new faces and friends, so I can grab a chair in the corner and take a richly deserved minute or two for myself while Beatrix goes exploring within my line of sight. Sometimes, when it looks like she’ll be staying put for a while, I’ll get up to browse the books on the shelves, both with an eye to my daughter’s reading and to my own. I’ll often pick up a title I remember and find myself lost in it all over again, and it’s a pleasure to discover that old favorites as different as The Way Things Work, The Eleventh Hour, and D’Aulaires’ Norse Myths have lost none of their fascination. There’s a considerable overlap between what kids and adults find interesting, and the best children’s books, like the best movies, can hold anyone’s attention.

I recently found myself thinking about this more intently, after discovering a shelf at the library that I’d somehow overlooked before. It’s a section devoted to classic literature for kids, and all of the usual suspects are here, from Anne of Green Gables to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—the latter of which is still the best children’s book ever written, and possibly, as Alan Perlis observed, the best book ever written about anything. But there were also many titles that weren’t originally written for younger readers but have been retroactively absorbed into the young adult canon. There was a generous selection of Dickens, for example, not far from Richard Lattimore’s translation of the Iliad and the collected stories of Edgar Allan Poe, and the same process has already gone to work on J.R.R. Tolkien. Novels of an earlier era that were written by grownups for other grownups start to look like children’s books: neither The Last of the Mohicans nor Huckleberry Finn nor To Kill a Mockingbird were conceived as works for young readers, but now we’re as likely to see them here as Laura Ingalls Wilder.

David Mitchell

There are a lot of possible explanations for this phenomenon, none of which are especially mysterious. Most of these books were four-quadrant novels in the first place: Dickens, like J.K. Rowling, was devoured by everyone at the time who could read. Many feature younger protagonists, so we naturally tend to classify them, rightly or wrongly, as children’s books, which also applies to stories, like the Greek myths, that contain elements of what look today like fantasy. And a lot of them are on school curricula. But there’s also a sense in which the novel, like any art form, advances in such a way to make its most innovative early examples feel a bit naive, or like more primal forms of storytelling that appeal to readers who are still working their way into the medium. Plato says that if the mythical sculptor Daedalus were to appear and start make statues again, we’d all laugh at him, and something similar seems to take place within literature. As the opening paragraph of James Wood’s recent review of the new David Mitchell novel makes clear, critics have a way of regarding storytelling as somewhat suspicious: “The embrace of sheer occurrence, unburdened by deeper meaning.” It feels, in short, like kid’s stuff.

But it isn’t, not really, and it’s easy to invert the argument I’ve given above: the books that last long enough to be assimilated into children’s literature are the ones that offer universal narrative pleasures that have allowed them to survive. Don Quixote can be found in the children’s section, at least in its abridged form, but it’s also, as Harold Bloom says, “the most advanced work of prose fiction we have.” A bright kid wants to read Homer or Poe because of the virtues that make them appealing to everyone—and it’s worth noting that most libraries keep two sets of each on hand, one in the children’s section, the other for adults. Every generation produces reams of stories written specifically for children, and nearly all of them have gone out of print, leaving only those books that pursued story without regard for any particular audience. The slow creep of classic literature into the children’s library is only a mirror image of the more rapid incursion, which we’ve seen in recent years, of young adult literature into the hands of grownups, and I don’t think there’s any doubt as to which is the most positive trend. But they’re both reflections of the same principle. Storytelling breaks through all the categories we impose, and the real measure of value comes when we see what children are reading, on their own, a hundred years from now.

The true origins of Don Quixote

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Whatever [Cervantes’s] intention may have been…it most certainly did not consciously and from the beginning propose to create a relationship like that between Don Quijote and Sancho Panza as we see it after having read the novel. Rather, the two figures were first a single vision, and what finally developed from them—singly and together—arose gradually, as the result of hundreds of individual ideas, as the result of hundreds of situations in which Cervantes puts them and to which they react on the spur of the moment, as the result of the inexhaustible, ever-fresh power of the poetic imagination.

Erich Auerbach, Mimesis

Written by nevalalee

March 3, 2012 at 9:50 am

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