Thursday, January 02, 2020

T.H. White vs the Oxford School of children's fantasy literature

Being a contrary child, I often took against writers I was meant to enjoy.

Arthur Ransome, for instance, was dispatched with a pincer movement involving Malcolm Saville and Richard Jefferies.

And once I discovered T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone I had no more time for C.S. Lewis.

I have just come across an article that suggests there may have been more behind this latter judgement than sheer cussedness.

In it, Rebecca Onion interviews Maria Sachiko Cecire about her book Re-Enchanted: The rise of children’s fantasy literature in the twentieth century.

In it she identifies an 'Oxford School' of children's fantasy literature led by J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis - led not just through their own writing but also through their influence on the development of the university's English Literature curriculum.

Sachiko Cecire says:
This curriculum at Oxford was really heavy on medieval literature, just at the moment when most other universities were going in the direction of modernism and the kinds of writing that we now associate with literary fiction in the 20th and 21st centuries. 
At Oxford they were doubling down on medieval literature and also looking at it not just as examples for linguistic analysis - which was how it had been primarily studied in the 19th century under philology - but really looking at it as literature. Really seriously asking students to meditate on both the English medieval past and also this idea of magic and enchantment.
And she points out that Susan Cooper, Kevin Crossley-Holland, Diana Wynne Jones and Philip Pullman all studied this curriculum between 1956 and 1968.

Cambridge doesn't have the same legacy of children’s fantasy writers, but it did have T.H. White:
T.H. White was at Cambridge at a really interesting time, when there was still a medieval requirement, but right as they were ending it. If you compare his The Once and Future King to, say, The Lord of the Rings, they’re so different in the way they talk about the Middle Ages, with a different level of reverence. 
There’s anachronism in White’s writing, and pretty profound critiques of the warlike nature of the Middle Ages and of a lot of the nostalgia for that period. Whereas Tolkien and his students tend to be a lot more reverent of that material.
This may explain why White's writing is so much warmer than that of the Oxford School.

The Sword in the the Stone is funny and sad, wise and silly, steeped in history and turns anachronism into an art form.

No comments: