Friday, 23 December 2011

The devil and the didacticism

Before coming back to university I had never really thought about how you would answer the question as to what children’s literature actually is. I (like many others presumably) would naturally assume that this most common of terms liberally bounded about would have a straightforward meaning. After all, in nearly every bookshop shelf space is dedicated to this most vague label of literary category. How wrong I was to originally assume that this was an easy question to answer.

Varying definitions spring forth from all corners within the literary, psychological and legal domains as to what a child is, which must of course be answered before one can assign any form of literature to this particular stratum of society. I wonder, what with Prof. Gillian Lathey’s talks on translating children’s literature and the prominent issue of authors, editors, publishers, parents, and teachers being those who are the key decision-makers on matters of suitability, readability and eventual consumption, whether all child-oriented literature ends up becoming a broader genre which Sandra Beckett(2009) and Rachel Falconer (2009) call crossover fiction.

Tales written by Charles Perrault originally written for the French court at Versailles eventually ended up in the children’s canon as well as literary canon in its broadest sense and this is exactly the point. Millennia old themes of tragedy, heroism, paganism, gods and demons, comedy, adventure epics, new worlds, fairies, fantasy lands were and are common in tales intended for both adults and children. These themes can be traced back through the mists of time to antiquity and its literature such as The Odyssey and the Iliad which have inspired in their wake such literary and historical epics such as Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare’s many plays, and the Icelandic sagas which have themselves spawned a new impetus in writing fantasy epics since the Victorian era. The list seems endless when one begins to count the literary classics such as Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales and the twentieth century’s hefty tomes in the forms of The Lord of the Rings, The Gormenghast Trilogy, The Chronicles of Narnia, The Earthsea Series, His Dark Materials Trilogy, and the king of them all when it comes to academic research and commentary, the infamous Harry Potter.

These modern novels have their roots in these recurring plots and age-old themes and could be argued to be reworks, or if one will allow the expression ‘spin-offs’. However one trait they have in common is that an element of adventure and the ‘unknown’ is present. One can easily imagine the original verse being recited around a fire with whole communities listening in, being absorbed by its moral messages and didacticism. Adults created, recited, promulgated, disseminated and passed down these tales by oral tradition for many generations as if they were sacred texts that must be remembered forevermore. They were, and indeed still are, an integral part to many cultures (perhaps in the form of nursery rhyme). They are there to teach, inform, and demonstrate the consequences of actions.

As adults we reminisce about these tales stories which I would say is an indicator of a long-lasting appeal and that these tales should all be considered crossover fiction. As my post suggests, it’s maybe time to move on from labelling genres with vague terms and perhaps start viewing the translation of children’s literature as translating the moral messages to be passed down to the next generation; messages which all of us can live by. And who doesn’t like a bit of adventure mixed in for good measure anyway...?

Adam Kirkpatrick translates from French and Swedish into English and is currently studying towards the MA in Literary Translation at the UEA. He is particularly interested in fantasy fiction, historical texts and the work of J.M.G Le Clézio. He can be contacted at

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