Silent Moving Ones
Beyond the Looking Glass Edited and with an Introduction by Jonathan Cott Stonehill, 1974, $12.95
IN VICTORIAN society, madmen and children kept company. Warped personalities didn't fit into the rigidly cast adult mold, so insane people were relegated to the status of childhood, where mischievous imaginations were still tolerable. If the British Isles menaced people's minds as severely as one historian believed, the naive characters must have abounded. Michel Foucault observes:
...in the classical period, the melancholy of the English was easily explained by the influence of a maritime climate, cold, humidity, the instability of the weather; all those fine droplets of water that penetrated the channels and fibers of the human body and made it lose its firmness, predisposed it to madness.
While insanity crept over the land, writers produced more children's literature than ever before or after--which suggests an interesting connection between madness and tales for children. At least two famous eccentrics, Lewis Carroll and Edward Leary, were well known authors of fantasy too.
A lot of intriguing history surrounds nineteenth century English fantasy, and the best of it involves more speculation than fact. Its authors found inspiration in the elusive, inhuman world of folk lore. Country dwellers recounted weird tales of the Good People, who direct the magnetic currents of the earth, and of gnomes, or earth-spirits--a dark, stocky lot, no more than two and a half feet tall, with sorrowful round faces. Although Scottish peasants, and seventeenth century scholars before them, discussed fairies with grave respect, incredulity has since been the rule among citydwellers. Perhaps a tinge of madness inspired an apparent sympathy for fairies, as well as children, in those writers. Jonathan Cott prefaces his recent anthology of Victorian fairy stories with some ingenious "Notes on Fairy Faith and the Idea of Childhood" in which he rambles through enough literary interpretations, and quests for the lore's origins, to let you concoct your own theory.
THE FIRST fairy stories were published by Charles Perrault in 1698. He pretended that they were children's entertainment while, in reality, they were meant to be read at upper class Parisian salons. The Christian Church condemned such threatening flirtations with the occult, and this disguise provided a strategic alibi. Perrault's printed stories spread a new form of popular literature, long confined by oral tradition; until his time, printed literature usually included only Scripture and classical works. But readers treated fairy tales apologetically, so when the novel emerged a century later--and Science began to dictate reality--fantasy was forced slightly underground again.
The fairy tale allied itself with other types of mass culture that saved it from cuteness and trite morality throughout the Victorian era. It never joined forces with another persistent and repressed literary genre, pornography--which this book terms "the ultimate cultural ghetto"--but it did identify with "vulgar" elements like spiritual mediums, Nursery nonsense and thrillers.
The chimeric nature of fantasy threatened the conventional, socialized scheme of life, and Victorian fairy stories flourished only briefly. Opposition to the literature came from organs like the utilitarian Westminster Review, which warned:
Literature is a seducer, we had almost said a harlot. She may do to trifle with, but woe be to the state whose statesmen writes verses, and whose lawyers read more in Tom Moore than in Bracton.
But the genre never faded permanently. As Cott points out, rock musicians, like Donovan, dabble in variations of fairy lore; professors, like Tolkein, study the Silent Moving Ones; and Victorian imagination persists in the social and political satire of "The Wind in the Willows" or "The Wizard of Oz." Susan Sontag relates that the North Vietnamese Women's Union rehabilitated thousands of prostitutes after the liberation of Hanoi from France in 1954 by telling them fairy stories and encouraging children's games. "That," a spokesman explained, "was to restore their innocence and give them faith again in man. You see, they had seen such a terrible side of human nature. The only way for them to forget that was to become little children again."
BEYOND THE LOOKING GLASS is an attractive volume. Many skillful illustrations--the original woodcuts--snare one in a tangle of detail. And the stories reveal the idiosyncracies of their authors more than any standard literary styles in fairy tales. John Ruskin moralizes, while Mark Lemon, the first editor of Punch, comes across very romantically for a man who earned his living by a pointed wit.
Cott includes an almost intimidating photograph of George Macdonald, one of the most influential of Victorian writers. He has an imposing, theatrical head--with staring eyes, straight nose, and a massive white beard--a black cassock is draped over his shoulders and bound with rope at the waist. Macdonald wrote allegorical, spiritual fantasy in a language that can only be described as lyric and dignified. Archetypes people his tales--like Photogen, the "day boy" and Nycteris, the "night girl" whom a witch raised on "wine dark as a carbuncle, and pomegranates, and purple grapes, and birds that dwell in marshy places; and she played to her mournful tunes, and caused wailful violins to attend her, and told her sad tales, thus holding her ever in an atmosphere of sweet sorrow."
The finest illustrations of all scatter the only verse narrative in Beyond the Looking Glass. Christina Rossetti wrote this text, called "Goblin Market," and Laurence Housman made the wood cuts. Rossetti was an excellent religious poet with near a thousand orthodox Christian poems to her credit, but "Goblin Market" is a far cry from pious spirituality. The verse oozes with sensual color and tastes; it is a surprisingly erotic work of literature for children.
She tells of two sisters who are tempted with forbidden fruit by a troupe of goblin brothers. A single taste of their juices leads to a lingering death. One of the sisters succumbs to the goblins' solicitation, and Rossetti writes that she:
...sucked their fruit globes fair or red: Sweeter than honey from the rock... She never tasted such before, How should it cloy with length of use? She sucked and sucked and sucked the more--
Fruits which that unknown orchard bore.
If the poem's explicit sexuality is unusual, the grotesque forms of the goblins certainly are not. They are a cross between animals and human beings; some have tails, others snouts, one is mostly rat. The difference between people and wild creature is typically unclear in fantasy. Lewis Carroll, for example, had no qualms about letting pigs sneeze, cats grin or caterpillars counsel.
Only one of Jonathan Cott's selections is disappointing. "Wanted--A King" reads like a cramped collage of Mother Goose rhymes. The author writes too stiffly and her familiar characters--Jack Horner and Mother Hubbard--detract from the narrative's originality. Unfortunately, this tale reinforces the "quaint" stereotype of children's literature with annoying passages on the order of: "She was most devoted to any baby; she loved the whole baby race, as every girl should do, and, in fact, as every right-minded girl does."
Beyond the Looking Glass convinces one that the original English fairy tales were not limp, sentimental daydreams. Although dominated by a sense of childish innocence, sinister, occult and perverse notions filtered into the stories through their roots in country lore. If you take this book to a quiet place, where the noises of an increasingly cynical and materialistic world don't penetrate, it's not hard to remember the ancient magic of earth, seed, and plough.