Read Reflections Online

Authors: Diana Wynne Jones

Reflections (10 page)

BOOK: Reflections
11.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

The Heroic Ideal: A Personal Odyssey

 

Children's Literature New England, which was founded in 1987 “to promote awareness of the significance of literature in the lives of children,” sponsors annual Summer Institutes on topics of interest to teachers, librarians, critics, and authors. The topic for 1988, presented at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was “The Heroic Ideal in Children's Books: Legacy and Promise,” for which Diana Wynne Jones was invited to discuss her own work in relation to the theme of “The Heroic Ideal.” The following talk was then first published in the journal
The Lion and the Unicorn
, Volume 13, Number 1, June 1989 (Johns Hopkins University Press).

 

 

G
ood evening. It is very kind of you to want me here. I feel very honored to be asked. I am also very lucky to
be
here. I have this travel jinx, you see. Something always goes wrong. This time it manifested early, when the ticket I had booked was mysteriously canceled. . . .

I have subtitled this talk “A Personal Odyssey.” Hackneyed though this is, I think you will find before the end that it is relevant in more than one way. My first reason for calling it this is that I have never been able to think of heroes or the heroic without taking them to some extent personally—particularly when I was asked to talk about these topics in relation to my book
Fire and Hemlock
.

Obviously we have to start with some basic definition of the hero and the heroic ideal. Having done that, I'd like to touch briefly on the way I found it to apply to children's books in general, and then go on to
Fire and Hemlock
in particular.

As a child, I was an expert in heroes. The eccentricity of my parents meant that there were almost no books in the house except learned ones, or books they used for teaching—and I was an avid reader. So before I was ten I had read innumerable collections of Greek myths, including Hawthorne's
Tanglewood Tales
, and the unabridged version of the
Morte d'Arthur
, in double columns and tiny print, from which, besides being very puzzled about just what Lancelot was doing in Guinevere's room, I made a mental league table of the Knights of the Round Table: Galahad went even below Kay, as a prig—my favorite was Sir Gawain. I also read
Pilgrim's Progress
and folktales innumerable from all over the world, including all of the Grimm—and also a certain amount of Hans Andersen, but as Andersen reputedly made his stories
up
my parents only admitted him to their house in limited quantities. I then went on to the
Odyssey
, which I preferred to the
Iliad
.

I was saddened to find that, as an eldest child and a
girl
, I was barred from heroism entirely—or was I? I puzzled long over the story of Hero and Leander.
1
Hero did nothing but let her lover do all that swimming. Obviously the girl was a wimp. But she had that
name
. When I was nine, much pleading wrung a frivolous book from my parents—
The Arabian Nights
, bowdlerized. Scheherazade, I was delighted to find, was an elder sister. So even though she did nothing but tell stories (literally for dear life), maybe there was some hope. I found it later in that book, in a tale in which the sultan's jealous sisters tell the sultan that his wife had given birth to a puppy, a kitten, and a log of wood. The log of wood was a girl, and she most heroically set things to rights. Good. It was possible for a girl to be a hero, then.

By this stage, I had acquired a firm mental grasp of what a hero is. A hero, first, is the one you identify with in the story. (Although this is not quite intrinsic to heroism, it
is
a fact that keeps flowing back into the definition and influencing it in all sorts of way. When I later read
Paradise Lost
, I saw at once that Milton had made the mistake of ignoring this.) Otherwise, heroes are brave, physically strong, never mean or vicious, and possess a code of honor that requires them to come to the aid of the weak or incompetent and the oppressed when nobody else will. In addition, most heroes are either related to, or advised by, the gods or other supernatural characters. The gods (even if they only appear in the form of fate) are important for heroism for two reasons. First, they supply a huge extra set of dimensions that put the hero in touch with the rest of the universe and render his actions significant for the whole of humanity. Second, the fact that the god, or gods, are watching over him serves to keep the hero up to his code. If he does chance to behave in a mean or vicious way—or break any of the other rules, for that matter, which are part of the world of that particular story—then he is at once punished and corrected.

But above all, heroes go into action when the odds are against them. They do this knowingly, often knowing they are going to get killed, and for this reason they impinge on a hostile world in a way others don't. When they die, their deaths are glorious and pathetic beyond the average.

Now this probably sums up Hector of Troy, and Hercules, and certainly applies to King Arthur—who has a double supernatural dimension, since he is guided both by Merlin and the Christian God—but I was aware that it did not quite apply to people like Jason; or to Theseus, who coolly abandoned Ariadne on an island; or to the heroes of innumerable folktales who, like the Brave Little Tailor, start their heroic careers with a gross deception; nor, particularly, did it apply to Odysseus. Odysseus, while being billed as every inch a hero, nevertheless conned and tricked and sweet-talked his way all round the Adriatic. This used to worry me acutely. I was quite aware, of course, that Odysseus belonged to the second type of hero—the foxy, tricksy hero, the hero with a brain—but this being the case, was it proper to regard him as a hero at all? For a long time I felt I only had Homer's word for it—that he was only a “hero” in the sense of being the person you identified with in the story. Then it dawned on me that the most heroic thing Odysseus does was never properly explained in my translation of the
Odyssey
(maybe Homer doesn't explain it anyway). This was to have himself tied to the mast with his ears open, while his sailors plugged their ears and rowed past the sirens. My translation represented this simply as a sort of musical curiosity on Odysseus's part: he wanted to hear whatever it was the sirens did. But if you look at this episode from the point of view of the rules of magic, you see at once that it is a calculated attempt to break the sirens' spell. Obviously, if a man could hear their irresistible song and yet resist them, this would destroy the power of the sirens for good. As soon as I saw this, I realized that Odysseus was a real hero.

Around this time, my grandmother gave me a book she had won at the age of six as a Sunday school prize (which she confessed she had chosen for its grand and incomprehensible title). It was called
Epics and Romances of the Middle Ages
. It contained almost every heroic legend from northern Europe that was not part of the Arthurian cycle: the Charlemagne cycle, the stories connected with Dietrich of Berne, the entire Nibelung cycle, including the bits that Wagner did not use, the story of Beowulf and of Wayland Smith, and many more, all illustrated with wonderful woodcuts but otherwise in no way adapted for children. I read it until it fell to pieces. Many of the stories were unutterably sad, particularly those in which the gods took a hand—so much so that, when I later heard the saying “Those whom the gods love die young,” I thought that, though thoroughly unfair, it was probably a profound truth.

Out of all this reading I had by now the basic hero story well plotted. Your average hero starts out with some accident of birth, parentage, or person which sets him apart from the rest and often, indeed, causes him to be held in contempt. Even if he seems normal, he has at some point to contend with his own physical nature (as when Beowulf fights the dragon as an old man, or when Odysseus listens to the sirens). Nevertheless, he sets out to do a deed which no one else dares to or at which others have horribly failed. The story often does not state the heroic code that demands this. That only manifests when, along the way, the hero's honor, courage, or plain niceness causes him to befriend some being who will later come powerfully to his aid. (This is one of the places where being a hero overlaps with “being the person in the story with whom we identify,” because your hero is after all also your goodie.) After this, he may well make some appalling mistake: as Christian strays from the straight and narrow path, or Siegfried forgets Brunhilde—and this lands him deep in trouble. He can then end tragically. Or he can call in the debt from the powerful being he befriended earlier and, with difficulty, prevail.

So much for the male heroes. But it seemed to me that the women were a mess. All over the world they were either goaded into taking vengeance, like Medea, or Brunhilde in my grandmother's book, or they are passive, like Hero or Andromeda or Christiana. A medievalist I consulted about this opined that Christianity had substantially affected the heroic ideal, especially where women were concerned, by introducing ideas of patience and endurance and the solitary personal struggle against one's own fleshly instincts. But you have only to look at the stories I have cited already to see that all these things are there in pre-Christian heroic stories. There seems to have been an overwhelming acceptance that meekness was the lot of a good woman, until she was goaded into turning evil. In the
Odyssey
, Penelope can only stay good by tricksy passive resistance which doesn't do much to get rid of her suitors. But at least she was using her mind—like her husband.

By this time I was adding the rest of an education to this childhood reading. This involved reading Chaucer's
Canterbury Tales
. And here I found a man writing who was more subtle than Odysseus,
playing
with the kind of narratives I had previously enjoyed, telling them in different styles, delicately deflating the typical hero, altering the balance of the tale with sophisticated touches (not least of which was making some tales almost too appropriate to their tellers, as in “The Clerk's Tale,” where he has the ultimate female wimp). And most ironical and sophisticated of all, he tells the most truly and obviously heroic story—“Sir Thopas”—pretending it is from his own mouth, and makes it an utter joke, a complete send-up. It was as if a super-Odysseus had passed that way, listening with a delicate and caustic ear to the siren song of my childhood stories and breaking their spell entirely. I didn't quite see this at the time, but I
was
left with an uneasy sense that the heroic ideal was awfully banal and naive and straightforward.

When I got to Oxford as a student I came to see that this was how these stories seemed now to
everyone
once Chaucer had done with them. No respectable writer dared for centuries to write a straightforward heroic narrative. If you wanted to, you had to show that your narrative had a purpose that was not heroic; either to strip the illusions from a naïve hero like Candide or Tom Jones (
Tom Jones
, interestingly enough, was based on the
Odyssey
), or to make a moral and social point aside from the story as, say, Dickens does. And the bad things to be conquered had to be reduced to credible everyday targets, like the government. Not surprisingly, by the twentieth century, tricksy Odysseus-like heroes came to be preferred (Raymond Chandler's Marlowe is typical) if you still stubbornly wanted any element of heroism or naive storytelling. And the whole thing reached an apotheosis in a non-heroic non-story by James Joyce, called, appropriately enough,
Ulysses
. In the midst of all this I was very grateful to come across a writer called Edmund Spenser who had managed to retrieve at least six genuine heroes from this mess and put them in a narrative called
The Faerie Queene
. This is an allegory. Even in Tudor times you couldn't do it straight and be thought serious (I may remind everyone that Shakespeare didn't consider his plays serious: his serious stuff was
Venus and Adonis
, where the decoration almost hides the story).

To my joy, one of Spenser's heroes was a woman. Britomart. Now, I haven't space to go into everything I learned from Spenser—things such as how to organize a complex narrative, or how to implant the far-off supernatural into the here and now—but I must pause a bit on what a discovery Britomart was to me. A woman who was a proper hero (this may be a commonplace now, but it certainly was not in the fifties). True, she was also an allegory of Chastity and dressed in armor like a man, but the significant thing to me was that she had a vision of her future lover and set out to do something about it as a hero should. The vision of the future lover is of course a common folktale element. But in
The Faerie Queene
the vision serves as the high ideal, the thing to strive toward, and it is also, in plain human terms, love. And here I began to see just what Christianity had really added to the heroic tradition. It had reinforced the high ideal—for God is love—but heroes have always had that, even if they do not know it when they begin; but, more importantly, Christianity had modified the tradition that a hero is guided by a god or gods. For God watches over everyone. Thanks to Britomart and Spenser, I now knew that every ordinary man or woman
could
be a hero.

But the heroic ideal, I thought, had gone sour. It was not until I had children of my own and through them came to read the children's books I had never had as a child, that I realized that here was the only place where the ideal still existed. It flourished alongside the
story
, since children will not read much without a narrative, in a way that leads me to suspect the two things are closely connected. (Both ideal and story have since begun to flourish again in adult fantasy, but this hardly existed at the time I'm talking of: Tolkien had published only part of
The Lord of the Rings
.)

BOOK: Reflections
11.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Black Rose by Steele, Suzanne
The Death Cure by James Dashner
Traveller's Refuge by Anny Cook
The Juice Cleanse Reset Diet by Lori Kenyon Farley
Rubbed Raw by Bella Jeanisse
Dreamology by Lucy Keating
Clash of Wills by Rogers, S.G.
This Girl for Hire by G. G. Fickling
Magic Edge by Ella Summers