In my view, the finest children’s books in English are The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, The Box of Delights, The Hobbit, and, from the USA, A Wizard of Earthsea.
If this list seems to be disproportionately in favour of ‘fantasy’ writing, then I should perhaps admit that my next group of books: The Wind in the Willows, Marianne Dreams, The Harry Potter Books, Tom’s Midnight Garden are also ‘fantasy’. The Daily Mail, for a complete contrast, did its own poll in 2008, where the top ten came out as: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the Very Hungry Caterpillar, The Famous Five, Winnie the Pooh, the BFG, Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Enid Blyton’s The Faraway Tree, the Wind in the Willows, Alice in Wonderland and the Gruffalo. All except the Enid Blytons, which would never make it onto my list, are ‘fantasy’, or, at least, non-naturalistic fiction.
Why do I think these are great books, and is this actually important?
To me, their greatness lies in the following things:
• they are each utterly original
• they are each works of art, in that they are immaculately conceived and created with a flawless mastery of language, plot and character
• they call up an extraordinary response of the imagination in children
If you’ve read my musings on What is art?, you will recognise these as being at the peak of Alternatives, Realisation and Transformation
Additionally, what raises them to the very highest level is:
• they deal with the very greatest themes within Western culture
The originality is perhaps harder to see given the over-supply of imitative fantasy literature which was written in their wake. Before the Hobbit, there were no stories about dwarves that treated them as a separate race, and there was not the slightest inkling of ‘hobbits’. Before The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe, the idea of other worlds, operating at different speeds from our own, was unheard of. A Wizard of Earthsea was the first place to have a school for wizards. The Box of Delights is still the only book of its kind. Of course, fantasy is a genre where a certain level of borrowing is not only acceptable, but really required. Tolkien borrowed the names of all of the dwarves, and Gandalf, from the Icelandic Snorra Edda. Lewis took his centaurs and fauns from Greek mythology (much to the disappointment of Tolkien, who felt he should not mix Norse with Greek). Masefield borrows from vignettes from all over history. Ursula Le Guin borrowed the Karish raid straight from the predations of the Vikings on Saxon England. But the underlying themes and the worlds they created were entirely new.
The art of the writing itself is what makes these works of extraordinary imagination accessible to children, but no less appealing to adults. Unlike, say, Enid Blyton, twenty years and a degree in English later, there is nothing which jars the sensibilities. CS Lewis’s writing is perhaps the most remarkable. There are very few words in the whole of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Interestingly, as the stories go on, they get longer, and, in most editions, are printed in progressively smaller type, which also helps to indicate that they are aimed at older children. All four authors are highly sensual, describing sight, voice, smell, the taste of food (and its feeling in the stomach), and more rarified states such as vertigo and fever. Yet, again, these sensual effects are achieved with remarkable economy.
Even more striking is the way in which the authors create the sense of magic. These are not books about magic, they are magical books. Thus, we experience the enchantments in the Box of Delights, we are terrified by the shadows reaching from the doorway in a Wizard of Earthsea, we feel ourselves pushing through the fur coats into a land of snow in Narnia, and, above all, we are part of the excitement and later dread as Bilbo discovers the properties of the ring.
The skill of writing leads directly into the emotional and imaginative response that these books evoke in children — and in adults on later reading. Not in all children, of course. Alongside the children whose literacy level is too low to enjoy the writing until they are too old for it, there are also (sadly, still) children who are taught from an early age not to imagine, and to see fantasy as ‘silly’. I find this always terribly disappointing.
The response in children who enjoy the books, though, is multi-layered. There is an intellectual response in all of the books — the logical puzzle of the two-track time in Narnia, the riddles in The Hobbit, the careful exposition of the Rule of Names in A Wizard of Earthsea, and the uncovering of the identity of Ramon Lully in The Box of Delights. There is also a strong emotional response: terror, in a Wizard of Earthsea, despair, as Kay discovers he has lost the Box of Delights, overwhelming sorrow at the death of Aslan, and the full gamut of almost every emotion there is as we share Bilbo’s journey in the Hobbit. And there is also a spiritual response. This is most obvious (and widely discussed) in the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but it is equally present in A Wizard of Earthsea, and always under the surface in the Hobbit and the Box of Delights.
Finally, all four of these books touch the great themes of the Western tradition. Deconstructionists might allege that these are Christian themes, but, in fact, they are more properly Indo-European than Christian. They are the battle of good and evil, the question of fate, destiny and free will, the issue of luck (or providence), the meaning of life – especially in comparison with death, and the question of who, if anyone, should have unending life. In a very real sense, these are themes which can only be touched on, certainly for children, in the context of something which is mythological or archetypal in scope.
These great questions have been examined in literary fairy-tales for centuries. The remarkable innovation, though, of these 20th century authors, is the union of these themes with what is, in many ways, a naturalistic writing style: the events are given to us not as related wonders, but as first hand experiences in which we can participate. Equally, the archetypal themes have been dealt with before in the literary style of the time, mixing fantasy and reality, as in Mallory’s Morte D’Arthur, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Beowulf, and the Odyssey. But all of these works, great as they are, were set in inherited scenarios, often with inherited plots and characters. My quartet of authors were each creators of their own worlds, with their own geographies, rules, and interactions with the more normal course of people’s lives.