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Where The Wild Things Live

Patricia Craig

Beasts at Bedtime: Revealing the Environmental Wisdom in Children’s Literature, by Liam Heneghan, University of Chicago Press, 256 pp, $27.50, ISBN: 978-0226431383

Environmental science professor Liam Heneghan has written a book which, though it has numerous strands, has one overriding theme: ecological peril and the need to arrest further decimation of species and habitats. At the simplest level, Beasts at Bedtime is an encouragement to parents to sit by their children’s bedside and, by reading aloud, impress on their infant sensibilities a feeling for the boundlessness of the world and its riches. There is, for example, a degree of ecological awareness in Winnie-the-Pooh, which a thoughtless perusal may overlook (Heneghan teases it out) ‑ and as for Maurice Sendak’s classic Where the Wild Things Are ‑ this outstanding picture book is attuned to a variety of elemental anxieties and the means to assuage them. An attentive child may grasp something of this, if only subliminally, and thereby lay the ground for a future respect for nature, a zeal for kindness to animals and birds and an aversion to globally destructive “development”.

This is all very admirable, but even those of us who don’t have children to read to may also derive pleasure and instruction from Professor Heneghan’s study. And we should bear in mind that there are many children ‑ I was one ‑ who prefer to read for themselves, dispensing at the earliest possible moment with an intermediary between them and the story. But the moral remains. Reading between the lines of children’s literature discloses a good deal of environmental thinking, whether it’s to do with “the healing power of nature” (as for example, with Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden), with the “committed conservationism” of Beatrix Potter’s stories or The Little Prince’s status as “a veritable instruction manual in good planetary maintenance”.

Liam Heneghan’s book is, among other things, a plea for enchanted places (pace Christopher Milne) to be left unmutilated. And defenders of wildness and wet should come to an appropriate understanding early on. Books are the catalyst here. There used to be an advertisement for children’s shoes which showed a pair of sturdy little figures setting out along a pathway disappearing into the distance, with a caption that read “START-RITE and they’ll walk happily ever after” (Start-Rite being the brand of footwear). In the same spirit, Heneghan says, start children off with the right reading material, and they’ll happily subscribe to advanced ecological ideas for the rest of their lives. Indeed, almost any item of juvenile literature can be enlisted to the environmentalist’s cause. The intense northern-forest allure of the Grimm Brothers’ tales, the sunny Alpine meadows beloved of Heidi in the stories by Joanna Spyri, the “harsh terrain” of Middle-earth: these, and others, testify to an instinctive reverence for place on the part of diverse authors.

It’s a rare children’s book, Heneghan notes, that doesn’t have a wilderness interlude; but then he has to consider exactly what is meant by “wilderness”. It is doubtful if nature at its most extreme and untrammelled can exist in the world today, since even the wildest of wild places are shaped by the activities of people as well as natural forces. He cites as an example the Burren in Co Clare, along with the bogs and mountainy country of the west of Ireland ‑ all territories that have evolved over millennia as a consequence of human intervention in the landscape. However, if wilderness, or quasi-wilderness, occurs at one end of the environmental spectrum and the densely populated city at the other end, what occupies the space between them is denoted by the word “pastoral”, and this makes a highly fruitful ground for children’s stories. Section Two of Beasts at Bedtime considers the pastoral impulse in writing for children, with due attention paid to Pooh, Peter Rabbit, Rat and Mole, Bilbo Baggins, the Ugly Duckling and others. (But we miss Rupert, whose picture-strip adventures encompass many aspects of pastoral: woodland, meadowland, fields, hills, seaside, streams, lily ponds, cottage gardens … all the way to underground caverns and cannibal islands. And you’d have to say that Rupert, in one sense, goes one better than Winnie-the-Pooh. In AA Milne’s stories a little boy plays with his bear; with Rupert, the little boy is the bear.)

Beasts at Bedtime is full of striking juxtapositions and elaborations. The fact that the author is an ecologist rather than a specialist in children’s literature makes for an original approach, when it comes to an assessment of works like The Voyages of Dr Doolittle or Babar the Elephant. Heneghan never loses sight of the main purpose, indeed, and his commentary is enhanced by drawing into its vicinity a range of endorsements from anthropologists, palaeontologists, psychologists, environmental philosophers, ecologists and others. (Beasts at Bedtime is decidedly not a book for children.) The effect of all this is scholarly but not academic ‑ which is to say that the book is lucidly, attractively and vigorously written, with a tone that is often agreeably wry and dry ‑ “Suitable though the novel assuredly is for sober adult reflection, it is none the less time … for Robinson Crusoe to be rediscovered as a novel for children”  ‑ while the text is structured in such a way that a note of bathos is never sounded, even when, for example, The Runaway Bunny sits cheek by jowl with the Prodigal Son, or Jean de Brunhoff’s  exuberant elephant is aligned to Eugene Odum, the “father of American ecosystem ecology”.

If the function of the father is to engender descendants, then you’d have to say that the daddy of all the desert island stories, Robinson Crusoe, is appropriately abundant in progeny. Defoe set in motion an entire genre based on islands, or the idea of islands, shipwreck, solitude, resourcefulness, regression, adaptability and/or adventure. From Treasure Island to Five on a Treasure Island, from The Coral Island to Lord of the Flies, island or castaway literature has branched out in many directions and drawn all manner of themes and implications to itself. The island, whether tropical (Ballantyne, Golding) or close to home (Blyton, Eilis Dillon), holds a strong appeal for authors and readers alike. In one sense, it’s a paradoxical appeal. Once you’ve reached the isolated island, Heneghan says, “you are freed from the demands of ordinary life”, but at the same time “trapped with whatever lurks there”. (At its worst, the lurking menace might be HG Wells’s Dr Moreau with his diabolical experiments.) As far as young readers are concerned, the theme-and-setting embraces a thorough immersion in a simplified brand of natural history.

Many child readers come to islands via Enid Blyton. The opening book of the “Famous Five” series, with its ruined castle on tiny private Kirrin, its ancient wreck thrown up by a storm, its rocks and rabbits and crooks and narrow shaves for its intrepid juveniles, set the scene for a host of holiday adventures, less descriptive and authoritative than Arthur Ransome’s, say, and considerably more clear-cut than William Mayne’s Yorkshire Dales evocations. Five on a Treasure Island was published in 1942, but Heneghan has traced its inspiration back to an obscure children’s book of fifty years earlier, Four on an Island, by the horrendously old-fashioned LT Meade. Is the linkage justifiable? Possibly ‑ and after all, we should remember that Blyton appropriated her “Famous Five” designation from the Greyfriars (Billy Bunter) author Frank Richards. There are indeed similarities between the two island books, though one is set just off the Dorset coast and the other in Brazil. Both recount the adventures of four cousins and a dog, though in rather different styles. I cannot imagine any of the Blyton characters addressing Timmy the dog in the following way: “Come here, you little darling, and let me touch your cool nose”, or thoughtlessly exclaiming in the face of danger, “Oh, what a fuss! when we are all so snug and jolly.” With these two books, we note, Liam Heneghan’s literary-critical antennae are finally activated. The Meade, he admits, “is not a great novel”; and neither is Blyton’s, “by literary standards”. But they serve their purpose here.

Actually, there’s an earlier Blyton story, The Secret Island, from 1938, which might have had even more relevance for Beasts at Bedtime’s pursuit of ecological undertones. In this book, four children run away from an intolerable domestic situation and spend six months, from June to December, fending for themselves on an inconspicuous island in a lake, an island containing nothing at first glance but “trees and birds and little wild animals”. Robinson Crusoe is mentioned once or twice. When the children emerge from hiding after trippers have landed on their private beach and left it strewn with litter, they complain angrily about “people that leave rubbish about in beautiful places”. There’s an environmental lesson here ‑ and indeed with the whole narrative drift ‑ tied up with the engrossing escapade and easy read.

Heneghan is aware of the “heavy burden” he is placing on certain children’s stories by asking them to take on responsibility for averting ecological doom. However ‑ like the white pebbles dropped by Hansel and Gretel to show them the way out of the wood ‑ Beasts at Bedtime returns at intervals to an assertion of the joy of the story pure and simple, aside from the additional layers of meaning to be extracted from it. Even if the implications are the point of Heneghan’s undertaking, the author’s relish for the stories he has selected from the vast field of children’s literature is everywhere implicit. He is equally devoted, we infer, to Sendak’s Max in his wolf suit and to the Tin Woodman. He clearly admires Suzanne Collins’s The Hunger Games no less than The Little Prince. Sometimes a stretch is needed to fit a particular story into the chosen parameters. Take Harry Potter, for instance: an environmental preoccupation might not be the first thing that springs to mind in relation to the young wizard, but JK Rowling’s series gets a look-in in these pages on account of the botanical basis of its magic spells. Thus resourcefulness is not confined to the books under discussion but is evident in arguments of the Heneghan book itself.

We may regret certain absences. CS Lewis is mentioned, but only in passing and without reference to the Castlereagh Hills in Co Down, which possibly set the whole “Narnia” enterprise going. I think, as well, of John Masefield’s The Midnight Folk, a magical and inspiriting tale, and environmentally audacious to boot, with its Upper Wood and Wicked Hill, and “red birds coming out of the wilderness with Knowledge”. And LM Boston’s “Green Knowe” books, especially the summery River at Green Knowe with its delight in the seasonal bounty and in everything to do with “the world along the river bank” ... But I won’t go on. Beasts at Bedtime is so rich in intent and achievement, its short chapters so densely packed and the whole book so stimulating and timely that complaint on any ground whatever seems out of place. A lot of appreciative adjectives can be applied to Liam Heneghan’s book, and many of them, like the word “environment”, begin with the letter “e”: erudite, engaging, enterprising, edifying, eccentric.

1/9/2018

Patricia Craig is an author and critic. Her books include A Twisted Root: Ancestral Entanglements in Ireland.

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