Literary Traditions: Children’s Literature


While I did not have the chance to attend what was no doubt an excellent class by Professor Nina Chordas on this exact same topic, I will try to do the subject justice by addressing it through the lens of one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most prominent essays—one which I lightly referenced in a previous article, “Literary Traditions: Eucatastrophe”—“On Fairy Stories.”

Tolkien, of course, is well known for writing The Hobbit, which is widely regarded as a children’s story, and has recently been transformed into three feature films by director Peter Jackson. Legend has it that Tolkien, who was a professor at Oxford, was grading essays one evening when he came across a student who had mistakenly left a blank page. Extremely bored at the time, he apparently nearly gave the student an A for his error, and proceeded to write, in the spur of the moment, the famous first sentence of The Hobbit: “Once, in a hole in the ground, there lived a hobbit.” He then stared at it and wondered what on earth a hobbit was, which sparked a lifetime’s work of world-building, ultimately culminating in The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

In his essay “On Fairy Stories”, which he wrote just as he was beginning to write The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien unfolds why it is that he takes fairy stories like The Hobbit so seriously, and what they mean for children.

Now, the first question to ask about any kind of literature is what makes it different from any other kind of literature. Children’s literature is often thought of as very different. For most, children’s literature is made up of fairy stories and other ‘childish things.’ For Tolkien, however, fairy stories were never necessarily connected with children. He observes:

“Among those who still have enough wisdom not to think fairy stories pernicious, the common opinion seems to be that there is a natural connexion between the minds of children and fairy stories. I think this is an error…most often made by those who…tend to think of children as a special kind of creature…rather than a normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large…Children as a class…neither like fairy stories more, nor understand them better than adults do.”

While at first this seems to be a surprising thought, it makes sense considering what Tolkien worked on in his life, and what he fought against.

It is often thought that Tolkien first conceived of Middle-earth as a method of entertainment for his children—to which, I might add, he was an excellent father—but this is not fully the case. While many of his stories did begin that way, like Roverandom, the world of The Lord of the Rings, as I have related above, began as an equally academic pursuit. Tolkien, in fleshing out the tales of Middle-earth, wrote something that was both children’s literature and synthetic English mythology—the kind of which had been missing from England for a thousand years. The way in which The Hobbit can be understood as both children’s story and academic text is emblematic not only of Tolkien’s genius, but also of children’s stories and academic texts: “if fairy story is a kind worth reading at all it is worthy to be written for and read by adults.”

This understanding also coincides with Tolkien’s notorious dislike of industry and the effects that it has on society. “Let us not divide the human race,” he says, referencing H.G. Wells’ The Time Machine, “into Eloi and Morlocks: pretty children—‘elves’ as the eighteenth century often idiotically called them—with their fairy tales (carefully pruned), and the dark Morlocks tending their machines.” This remark is pointed; the rise of industry in many ways exaggerated the gulf between child and adult, especially with the introduction of public schooling. Rather than over-adapt books for children—a sort of condescension—he says that, “their books like their clothes should allow for growth, and their books at any rate should encourage it.”

In the end, it seems to me that the difference between children’s literature and other literature is just the label; the distinction is a false dichotomy. This world deserves a better class of theorist…and we’re gonna give it to them.

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