When All the World Was Young
The Beguiling of Merlin
In her book The Enchanted Hunters Maria Tatar tells us “Words have not just the astonishing capacity to banish boredom and create wonders. They also enable contact with the lives of others and the story worlds, arousing endless curiosity about ourselves and the places we inhabit. Such passion promises to keep us, at least intellectually, forever young.” In reading time often stops, or at least it seems to. But even if time does not actually stop, in reading well the mind retains its vigor and becomes more flexible. A story, to be enjoyed and understood requires the reader to enter its world and entertain its point of view. I must read Les Miserables with the heart of a revolutionary and The Man Who Was Thursday with a fondness for the established order (though as is true with most things Chestertonian, it must be a quirky fondness). I must be able to see and embrace the world from both sides of the fence.
This does not mean I stop being myself, or that my world view changes each time I open another book, but it does mean I have to give the point of view of the story a chance to have its say. For the sake of the story the world is seen through a revolutionaries eyes or the eyes of a gentleman with conventional views. I think it is easier for readers of stories to accept people with beliefs different from their own (not that they always will of course) because somewhere along the line there has been a story where those beliefs have been entertained and where they may not have been embraced necessarily by the reader, they have been understood and appreciated and for a fictional time the world was viewed through those lenses. Rosemary Hill in her review of a new edition of Wind and the Willows mentions another story by Kenneth Grahame, “The Roman Road.” The story, she tells us, is “a conversation between a child and an adult, its message that only the artist and the child are imaginatively free.” The reader lost in a book, I think, becomes like the child in the Kenneth Grahame story, “imaginatively free.”
The painting at the top is of Merlin, King Arthur’s magician and mentor. Like Benjamin Button in the Fitzgerald story Merlin, according to some versions of the tale, was born old and grew younger. He was a man who knew from the start what it meant to be old and came to understand what it meant to be young. He is beguiled as an old man, which would make him young and inexperienced in his reverse chronology. He knows what is coming, has foreseen it, but he has lost the wisdom of age and is experiencing the passions of his youth. Perhaps his mind has become that of an adolescent enchanted by a beautiful face. I enjoy the image of Merlin growing younger. Perhaps it is the longing of an aging man for the days of his youth or maybe it is the desire to preserve an enthusiasm for living that age and experience often quench.
“One More Step, Mr. Hands” Illustration for Treasure Island
N. C. Wyeth
C. S. Lewis once said, “In reading great literature, I become a thousand men and yet remain myself.” I think it is also true we become a thousand ages. The painting above is an illustration from Treasure Island. When I read this story I become Jack Hawkins, or at least like him in my imagination. When I read The Catcher in the Rye I see the world through the eyes of Holden Caulfield and become a bit like him. Though both these characters are the same age they come from different ages and therefore experience the world very differently and though as the reader I am experiencing the world of a teenager, they are very different teenagers living in very different worlds. So though the “age” I become in reading each of these stories is the same age in years it is not the same age in experience. This too, keeps the mind young and active.
Nor is youth always measured in years. I often tell people that the passage of time makes me grow older, but no power on earth can make me grow up. It can be said that Scrooge is a younger man at the end of A Christmas Carol than he was at the beginning. He is a younger man than he was when Old Marley died seven years before the story begins, if youth is measured in the way we think and behave. Unlike Merlin, Scrooge was not born old, but he lost his youth at an early age and recovers it many years later. Sometimes we need stories to remind us that being childlike is not being childish and that some aspects of age are more a state of mind than of being.
Children Playing on the Beach
The paintings above and below by Mary Cassatt capture certain aspects of the innocence of childhood, playing on a beach, listening to a story. It is the aspect of childhood captured in the two children on the beach that many want to recover when they get older. The children are engrossed in their “work” and nothing seems to distract their focus. Their work is their play and it is what many adults want their work to be. There is a great deal of what I do as a teacher that is like sitting on the beach filling my bucket with sand. It is pleasure and it is sunlight and it is the waves and the cry of gulls. Obviously my classroom is not a beach, there is much in my day that is like a day at the beach.
Auguste Reading To Her Daughter
The young girl listening to the story has a different look, a more mysterious look. Does she like the story she hears, is she listening, or is she somewhere else in her imagination? Adults often think that children want to hear a story, want to be read to, and often this is true. But I think sometimes children, like us, want to explore on their own, do not want others tagging along on the journey. In the reading of a story, whether we are reading on our own or being read to, the journey is always an individual journey, both the reader and the listener are “reading” the same story but they do not take the same journey. None of us can live in the imagination of another, though it is likely that our paths cross.
When I go to Treasure Island the island I visit resembles the island others visit, but it is unlike anyone else’s island. The journey is a personal one and that is important to remember. As a teacher I try to encroach upon the world that has been built in the minds of my students. I try to manipulate the story, to get them to see the palm tree as I see it, but of course this cannot happen. Those that see my palm probably see it only because they either did not read of the palm tree on their own or if they did, they did not see the palm tree, only the words on the page and were waiting for someone else to tell them how to draw the picture.
Baby Herman and Roger Rabbit “Tummy Trouble”
Walt Disney Studios
When we get to the end of this little film we see that the baby is not a baby (or at least we hear the voice of an old man when the baby speaks). If there is a child in this film it is Roger Rabbit, the baby is only masquerading as a child. The adventures these two have are the adventures of childhood, with all the exaggerated situations and expressions and the sense of powerlessness a child might feel in a large world that is out of control. The humor lies in the near misses and the indestructible nature of youth. Everything is dangerous and exciting but nothing, in fact, can do any harm. When the bombs burst Roger and Herman are scorched but unhurt. It is the world that some children crave that has all of the excitement that comes from living dangerously without the pain. After surviving the explosions and the flying objects both Roger and Herman leave the set to return to a safer, saner, and less exciting world.
Ursula K. Le Guin wrote a review in this weekend’s edition of The Guardian of a book of stories by Italo Calvino. The book is called The Complete Cosmicomics. The stories, according to the review are very fanciful and were not taken seriously when published because they too closely resembled science fiction and science fiction, especially in the 1960’s, was not taken seriously as literature, it still isn’t by some. But they are the stories of a childlike mind, with characters with names that cannot be pronounced having experiences that cannot happen. But that is how the comic world works. That is also how the imagination often works. In the imagination we often do the impossible, say the unsay-able.
I remember as a child I had a recurring dream where I was riding a bomb to earth (this was the late 1950’s and bombs and bomb shelters were often in the news). The dream always began just after the bomb was dropped. I would wake up frightened just before the bomb hit the ground. Then one night as I was having this dream I told myself in the dream “this is just a dream and no harm can come to you”. From that moment on I enjoyed the sensation of free fall and when the bomb hit, it was like Roger Rabbit and Baby Herman, no one got hurt. Perhaps this too is part of the comic world, the world of a “mind forever young,” where there is pain there is also resilience and nothing is hopeless.