A number of the national UK newspapers have reported on a particular blog post from Graeme Whiting, the head teacher of an independant school in Gloucestershire, called The Imagination of a Child. In this post, Whiting rails against the alleged tendency of modern parents to allow their children to read inappropriate fiction.
I will not go into detail on the irrelevance of his account of his own school life, which he mentions but fails to tie into his point. Nor will I explore the message he has about therapy and mental illness, being as I have no interest or expertise in it. I will only say that I very much doubt Whiting’s expertise on such subjects exceeds my own.
On what Whiting has to say about fantasy, however, I have a great deal to say in response.
Whiting twice uses this word, unacceptable, first followed by “words” and second by “literature”.
I find it mind-boggling to think that someone who presumes to be an educator considers there to be any word or any example of literature which could be considered unacceptable. Certainly, there may be some that is inappropriate for an age of child; I would not expect, for example, a child to read George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series – or “Game of Thrones”, as the first book is titled, and similarly the TV adaptation, and as the national media has apparently latched onto, presumably because it is the least appropriate fantasy for a child to read, and very much in the puplic consciousness since the beginning of season 6 of the TV show.
Using this word, and indeed much of the other language Whiting uses, is nothing but snobbery and elitism. Books are acceptable or unacceptable by virtue of genre or age, or by the degree of fictionality within them (for after all such classics as he cites are as much invented as anything with dragons and magic wands in it).
Set up in contrast to the fantasy novels which have such an apparently corrupting influence, Whiting champions the Classics:
“I stand for the old-fashioned values of traditional literature, classical poetry, Wordsworth, Keats, Shelley, Dickens, Shakespearean plays, and the great writers who will still be read in future years”
But I cannot help but wonder whether Whiting has in fact read these works. Consider, for example, Dickens. In Oliver Twist the titular character, after escaping a situation very much like slavery, is befriended by a thief (Dodger) and a prostitute (Nancy) – who is herself later murdered by Bill Sykes. His novels were full of darkness, most notably the depiction of poverty, as well as depictions of some incredibly unsavoury characters. Darkness and unpleasantness of the very kind that Whiting claims to oppose exposing children to.
Similarly Shakespeare, as many commentators have already pointed out, is packed with the very elements Whiting rails against: mysticism. Shakespeare’s plays are packed full of ghosts, witches, fairies and general mischief-makers; his histories are full of murders and betrayals. In Othello is depicted the paranoid jealousy of an abusive and controlling husband; in Much Ado About Nothing there is no shortage of ribaldry and even a sexual pun in the very title (“nothing” being at that time slang for a woman’s sexual organs).
Another author brought ot mind, not cited by Whiting but perhaps within his definition of the “classics” is Hans Christian Andersen, whose tales I am currently studying via a FutureLearn course (see my blog posts so far on it here: week 1, week 2). Andersen was a contemporary and indeed acquaintance of Dickens, and wrote for children, so I an confident that Whiting would consider his tales appropriate for children where Harry Potter is apparently not; yet Andersen’s tales, while told in a child-like manner, are similarly full of darkness. As I said in my commentary for week 2 of the course, the soldier in The Tinderbox is not a likeable protagonist, nor a moral one, for he murders the witch without provocation or justification, uses the magical tinderbox for personal gain, and goes on to use it and the magical and gigantic dogs it can summon to murder the king and queen.
On several occasions Whiting describes modern fantasy books as “addictive”, deploring their impact on the children who read them.
“Buying sensational books is like feeding your child with spoons of added sugar, heaps of it, and when the child becomes addicted it will seek more and more”
Firstly, I find the reference to addiction to be hyperbole, a comparison to a very real problem of chemical addictions and the lengths they drive the addicts to, as well as the harm they cause to the addict’s health. By contrast an addiction to books is a silly concept that makes Whiting claim ridiculous by overstatement.
Secondly I find it odd that a so-called educator would warn against allowing children to read. What could be wrong with a child eager to read? Ah, but it is not reading Whiting opposes; it is reading unacceptable books. Comes back the snobbery.
And what defines unacceptable in this case? Imagination. Whiting says in one paragraph: “Imagination is so rich and important” – and yet in the very same sentence deplores parents for not protecting their children from “literature that will encumber the minds and especially the imagination of their children.” I fail to see how reading could possibly encumber imagination, rather than lift it up and encourage it, water it as a seed. Whiting later writes:
“Children are innocent and pure at the same time, and don’t need to be mistreated by cramming their imagination that lies deep within them, with inappropriate things.”
Cramming their imagination with inappropriate things. Such inappropriate things as the ghost of Hamlet’s father, perhaps? Or the witches three who predict Macbeth’s future crown and Banquo’s dynasty?
Don’t even get me started on the supposed purity of children, as if they have no understanding of indeed ability to understand darkness, sadness, loss, grief and so on before puberty – as if none of them have ever been in and out of hospital with cancer, or stood weeping at the funeral of a beloved grandma, or found themselves at the mercy of an abusive parent. No; Whiting seems to think children should be protected from any notion of darkness until the age of fourteen, and does not seem to think that learning about it gradually through the distancer of fiction might help them from growing up into naive eighteen year olds with only four years knowledge of the darker realities of life.
This, I find, is my main opposition to Whiting’s comments.
“I want children to read literature that is conducive to their age and leave those mystical and frightening texts for when they can discern reality, and when they have first learned to love beauty. Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, The Hunger Games, and Terry Pratchett, to mention only a few of the modern world’s ‘must-haves’, contain deeply insensitive and addictive material which I am certain encourages difficult behaviour in children”
Whiting sets up this idea, implied if not explicitly stated, that the fantasy works he cites are without beauty. That their darkness, their mysticism, their “frightening” content means they are quite without beauty, that beauty cannot exist in such works.
Whiting clearly has never read any of these.
I find there is beauty in all of the fantasy I read. Beauty, of course, is proverbially in the eye of the beholder.
I see it in the rich descriptions of Tolkien’s work, in his detailed worldbuilding, and in the loyalty and dedication of his characters. I see it in his subtle analogy of war and the lasting impacts it has upon his returning heroes in their different ways. I see it in the grace of his fading elves, the fighting will of his embattled human societies, and the simply pleasures remembered by his hobbits while at far remove from them.
In Pratchett there is beauty in his subtly funny turns of phrase, his lyricism, in the way he turns tired fantasy tropes into something new and different. So too do I see beauty in the way he has succeeded in showing the humanity and inherent value in a massively diverse range of fantasy creatures, from trolls to gnomes. I see the beauty of remembering a fallen comrade and a day of importance with lilac. In recognising the unending march of time as a young witch mourns the death of a bastion of society and a mentor for generations of witches, but continues on living life because it goes on regardless, there too is beauty.
Fantasy abounds with beauty of all varieties. If Whiting cannot recognise this, then he is no more than a piteous fool with no beauty in his eye.