Friday, 6 February 2015

Laura Rereading: 'A power that comes with knowing'

Me, aged five/six.
I've recently been re-reading some of the fantasy novels of my early childhood. I was a very precocious reader, so my mother had the unenviable task of finding novels that were long and complex enough to hold my attention for some time, but were not unsuitable for, or incomprehensible to, a six-, seven-, or eight-year-old reader. Once I hit the eight- to twelve-year-old age-group, I was happy to read books that were more solidly aimed at children my age, so the issue largely disappeared - but as a younger child, it did mean that I ended up reading novels that often went over my head. Nevertheless, re-reading the books from these years that still give me pleasure today has also made me realise how much I understood of them even at a very early age, and how much children do understand, even when it is surrounded by concepts that are really too big for them. There are parts of these novels that I respond very differently to, but other parts to which my response hasn't changed since I first read them. In chronological order, then...

I've always loved the cover art for
these books, and its accurate depiction
of details from the text. The same artists
drew the covers for Garth Nix's Sabriel,
Lirael and Abhorsen.
Age six: Wise Child, Monica Furlong

This absorbing and delightful novel tells the story of the orphaned Wise Child, who lives on a remote Scottish island, and who is taken in by the 'village witch', Juniper. However, Juniper's life does not contain the dramatic spells, curses and blood sacrifices that Wise Child fears. Instead, it is full of a very everyday magic, as Juniper lives in harmony with the things around her and listens to what her normal experiences have to say. Indeed, this exchange between the pair probably sums up the novel as a whole: "I thought if you were educated you didn't have to do boring things," Wise Child complains, having become tired of the round of chores. "There are people who think like that. Such a pity. Boredom is so valuable," Juniper replies. Similarly, when Wise Child complains again of dullness, Juniper tells her "I think the dull bits are often the best... Too much excitement is very distracting. You just need it now and then to give you something to feed off." Wise Child is not a boring novel by any means, but it is a quiet one. While a plot about the danger that surrounds Wise Child and Juniper gradually builds throughout the novel, the bits of it that I liked best both as an adult and as a child concern the way that Wise Child and Juniper learn to live together, and how Wise Child gradually realises that becoming a doran, like Juniper, is not about being special, important or clever, but about being willing to listen and learn. It's a story that still speaks to me in so many ways, and as a child, I do think I responded to this message as well as to the bits of the story that I most vividly remember from childhood, like the details of Juniper's cozy house, and the horrible paintings of sacrifices that Wise Child discovers in a network of caves underneath. The most interesting thing about re-reading this book, of course, is the move from identifying more with Wise Child to identifying more with Juniper.

Age seven: Juniper, Monica Furlong

I was not impressed with receiving this as a present as a seven-year-old one Christmas; I'd been hoping for various elaborate dolls, and my diary flatly states that my most disappointing Christmas present was 'Juneprer'. Ironically, it was the only one that I can still enjoy twenty-one years later. Both as a child and as an adult, I like this prequel to Wise Child even more than the original novel. It deals with Juniper's early life in Cornwall and her training as a doran under the strict Euny. Unlike Wise Child, which shows how a neglected child thrives under good care, Juniper focuses on how an adolescent who has always lived in luxury copes when she has to deal with hunger and poverty. Wise Child and Juniper teach similar messages about 'the power that comes with knowing',  but this prequel is much more focused on sacrifice and austerity, suggesting that some degree of discomfort is necessary if we are to connect with our true selves. (I wasn't surprised to find out that Monica Furlong wrote a series of biographies of monks and other spiritual figures for adults; there's definitely a hint of a monastic regime in Juniper, although in a very different context). As in Wise Child, I find Juniper less engaging when the plot hots up at the end and Juniper has to save her kingdom from peril. However, this leads me to a tangent about how children read books; in Tamora Pierce's Alanna: The First Adventure, Alanna similarly discovers a sorcerous threat to her kingdom. As a child, all these stories blended into one for me, and in a way I think I felt that they were all happening in the same place and time, even though Pierce's Tortall is clearly very different from Furlong's Cornwall. (I remember feeling VERY baffled when a little girl in a series of books whose name I have forgotten managed to read the Betsy-Tacy books; in my head, these books and the Betsy-Tacy series were at the same level of reality, so a girl in one lot of books shouldn't be reading about girls in another set of books; she should be playing with them!)

I know that this started as a trilogy and
is now a quintet(?) but I grew up with
the quartet, in this omnibus edition!
Age eight: The Earthsea Quartet, Ursula Le Guin

Speaking of books that blend into each other, I spent a long time feeling that Robin McKinley's The Hero and the Crown, which I read at a similar age, took place in the Earthsea universe - perhaps because of the dragons. This famous fantasy series envisions a world where wizards are able to wield power via the mastery of the true names of things, but also a world where magic is woven into the very fabric of the universe. There are certainly similarities with the magic system here and the less-defined power of the dorans in the Furlong books. While Furlong relies less on naming, Ged's education at Roke certainly emphasises that it is the awareness of how little power you have that brings you any power at all - that magic is not about bangs and explosions, but living in the right relationship to the world around you. By far my favourite of the quartet, both as a child and an adult, was The Tombs of Atuan. As a child, I was fascinated by the closed world of a religious order that it depicts, and the lonely existence of Arha, chosen at birth to be its high priestess. I had a similar response as an adult, but also appreciated the complexity with which Arha's character is drawn, and her relationships with a range of characters within her small community, from the light-hearted novice Penthe to her eunuch servant, Manaan. Ged comes to rescue Arha from her imprisonment and gives her a true name, Tenar, but there is something about the world she lives in that I still find compelling. On the whole, I don't hold the Earthsea novels in as much affection as the Furlong books. They lack the quiet but gripping power of Furlong's narratives, and while the world they depict is richer and more complex, the omniscient narration is distancing, holding the reader at one remove from the characters. However, I was surprised by how much I now appreciate Tehanu, the fourth book of the quartet, and the one that I never finished as a child. It's unsurprising that I didn't - the subtlety of the writing still requires careful and perceptive reading as an adult. Interestingly, Tehanu moves away from the grand narratives of the earlier novels to become something that is more akin to Juniper and Wise Child; a smaller story about a woman with 'ordinary fears' who can nonetheless talk to dragons, and - more impressive - help to heal a broken child.

What books did others read when they first became confident readers? What did you think of them, and is it the same as what you think of them now?

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