The alchemy of childrens literature


Mysticism, theology, religion, the supernatural; call it what you will there can be no denial of the importance mystic thought has played in the history of children’s literature. In some cases this is quite obvious as in Francis Hodgson Burnett’s, the Secret Garden or in the peculiar presence of Pan in Kenneth Grahams the Wind in the Willows. But at other times this mysticality is confused for sugary sentimentality and is derided by critics, despite the adoration of the reading public and it’s lasting influence. It is my aim to illustrate in brief  the importance of mystic thought in the children’s literature of the latter part of the so called Golden Age and to show how it still influence literature even up to this day.

   Numinous, the mystical presence of divinity is a common and integral feature of late 19th and early 20th century children’s literature from sources as diverse as George MacDonald’s “At the Back of the North Wind”, Francis Hodgson Burnett’s “The Secret Garden” and Kenneth Grahams “The Wind in the Willows”. The German theologian Rudolf Otto in his book Das Heilige (1917) categorized Numinous as having two distinct but complimentary aspects. These are mysterium tremendum, which is a thing that invokes fear or trembling and is central to religious conversion stories, revelatory narratives, and works of a prophetic nature and mysterium fascinans which is the tendency to attract, to fascinate or compel. It is the latter mysterium fascinans which we find at work in children’s literature.

   Religious philosopher Mircea Eliade used the term “Nostalgia for Paradise” in what I consider an effort to further our understanding of Numinous. Eliade believed that a person has a longing to return to paradise. In children’s literature we find this philosophy in the ruralist writing of the latter part of the 19th and early 20th century, and most especially in the writings of Burnett, Grahame and A.A. Milne who represents the last of the golden age authors. Perhaps because Milne was the last or perhaps because his story could draw from such a rich tradition after the events of World War One he created an idealized world for children (and adults) which had the capacity to take the reader back to an earlier, more innocent pre war era. It was the mysterium fascinans of Winnie the Pooh and the depth of everyday enchantment of the 100 acre wood which created within the reader his or her own nostalgia for paradise, and in the nearly ninety years since its publication that fascination has not abated.

 Milne’s 100 acre wood is both the most accurate rendition of actual childhood created to that date and also the most nostalgic. Whereas earlier works for children used metaphor and symbol to illustrate the idea of childlike imagination Milne transformed childhood itself into a symbol of the imagination and it is through this lens we view childhood today.

   The “House at Pooh Corner” was published after the terror of World War One had irrevocably altered the worlds understanding of what innocence meant. Pooh is separated by some years from its closest relation in children’s literature and yet it cast its glance backward to a mythologized paradise where innocence was never violated and in so doing makes the argument that numinous exists where ever there is the spirit of innocence ready to receive the presence of the sacred. Milne achieves this precisely because he transformed the language and thus the meaning of childhood into a self containing symbolic construct. The 100 acre wood and its inhabitants and especially Winnie the Pooh are not only an imagined geography but a genius loci (protective spirit of a place) for childhood innocence. Winnie the Pooh, within the confines of his sacred space within the wood takes on the role of protector spirit and guide. It is the innocence of Pooh by which the weary adult might return, if only for a moment into a simpler time before age and brought the burden of wisdom. The Golden age of Children’s literature that began a hundred years prior can be summed up in the closing passage A.A. Milne’s the House at Pooh Corner.

 “But wherever they go, and whatever happens to them on the way, in that enchanted place on the top of the Forest a little boy and his Bear will always be playing”.

   That is the nostalgia for paradise to which Mircea Eliade refers and through understanding it we may better understand the transformative role (and I use the term transform in the sense of spiritual alchemy) of children’s literature that arose in the middle half of the 19th century and that still influences our way of thinking to this very day. It is the mysterium fascinans, the ability to fascinate and thus engage the reader which leads to the awareness of numinous that is the source of the wisdom we gain from those books that engage our imaginations and that urge us onward into ever deeper mysteries. Perhaps the presence we encounter and that is most fully realized in the form of Winnie the Pooh is simply our own inner longings or perhaps it is the presence of the divine in some form or another. Either way the power for transformation we encounter under the shadow of that presence can not be denied

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