In 1828, a young man was found in the market square of Nuremberg. He could write his name, Kaspar Hauser, but he could not speak, except for a single sentence: 'I want to be a rider like my father.' He had been kept all his life in a cellar, alone in the dark until his unexplained release that day. Though in his teens when he suddenly appeared, he seemed a symbolic child, a stranger to society, a tabula rasa in whom ignorance and innocence perfectly coincided. In his wild state, Kaspar Hauser offered his new minders and teachers a blueprint of human nature - untouched. And in his case, his character fulfilled the most idealised image of original innocence.
He was sick when given meat to eat, passed out when given beer, and showed so little aggression and cruelty that he picked off his fleas without crushing them to set them free through the bars of his cell. His story attracted myth-making in his own time, and has continued to inspire writers and film-makers.
Kaspar Hauser was an enigma, and after his mysterious return to the world his life was never free from strange, turbulent incident: he was suspected of fabrication, he was assaulted and wounded by an unknown assailant, and later was thought to be the usurped heir to the throne of Baden. His gentle goodness couldn't save him: he was attacked, seduced, betrayed, and abandoned by his would-be adoptive father, Lord Stanhope. And finally he was murdered, in still unsolved circumstances, in 1833.
There had been other wild children who inspired scientific experiments into human development, but Kaspar Hauser more than any other foreshadows this century's struggle with the question of the child's natural character. And his fate still offers a parable about the nostalgic worship of childhood innocence, which is more marked today than it ever has been: the difference of the child from the adult has become a dominant theme in contemporary mythology.
In literature this has produced two remarkable dream figures living in voluntary exile from grown-up society - Kipling's vivid Mowgli and J M Barrie's cocky hero, the boy who wouldn't grow up, Peter Pan. Both reveal the depth of adult investment in a utopian childhood state, and this can lead to disillusion, often punitive and callous, with the young as people. The shock of James Bulger's death was deepened by his murderers' ages, but their trial revealed a brutal absence of pity for them as children. It was conducted as if they were adults, not because they had behaved with adult consciousness, but because they had betrayed an abstract myth about children's proper childlikeness.
Childhood, placed at a tangent to adulthood, perceived as special and magical, precious and dangerous at once, has turned into some volatile stuff - hydrogen, or mercury, which has to be contained. The separate condition of the child has never been so bounded by thinking, so established in law as it is today. This mythology is not fallacious or merely repressive. Myths are not only delusions - chimeras - but also tell stories which can give shape and substance to practical, social measures. How we treat children really tests who we are, fundamentally conveys who we hope to be.
The separate sphere of childhood has grown - as a social concept, as a market Possibility, as an area of research, as a Problem: children are no longer chattels, and measures like the Children Act give them voice in choices and decisions about their legal situation. Incest, molestation and even rape in families have always taken place, but never have more attempts been made - often with appalling clumsiness - to save children from their violators.
Fiction and reportage also focus on the child as so radically different that he or she stands in an oblique relation to human society, not entirely part of it, not yet incorporated into history. Charities, in hard-
pressed competition for funds, resort to more and more explicit images of maimed, starving, diseased, orphaned and doomed infants and children in order to raise money for schemes that are frequently intended to help everyone, such as cancer research and water purification. The children in the photographs provide a solution to what could be called 'the Oxfam syndrome': how to portray the need and poverty of others without making it look like their endemic, perennial hopelessness. Children, who are vulnerable and dependent in every society, whatever its circumstances, help to evade that implicit condescension.
The injured child has become today's icon of humanity. It is no accident that Les Miserables inspired one of the contemporary theatre's greatest successes, that the saucer-eyed, starveling waif staring from the posters drew thousands to the musical. The face of James Bulger has become the most haunting image of present horrors and social failure - his innocence an appeal and an accusation.
Some historians have suggested that the comparative offhandedness towards children in the past denotes indifference, and that the kind of love we expect and know today is a comparatively modern phenomenon, a bourgeois luxury. Certainly hardly any examples of children's own writings or paintings survive, and few records of their behaviour have come down, until parents - in 17th-century Holland, for instance - began keeping diaries. But this doesn't necessarily mean parents didn't care. From Roman epitaphs to memorials in Westminster Abbey, the accents of grief sound across the centuries. On a tomb in the Etruscan necropolis of Cerveteri, near Rome, a father had these verses written for his daughter, Asiatica: 'Here lies the lifeless body of my beloved little girl, who has been plunged into a bitter death by the Fates - her unlucky life had lasted less than 10 years. Cruel fates, who have saddened my old age] For I shall always seek, little Asiatica, to see your face again, shaping its features in my mind to find some consolation. My only solace will be to see you again, as soon as ever possible, when, my life over, our two shades will be united.'
Not only tombs, but stories too convey this intense attachment: the murders of offspring provide the believable motive for terrible revenges: Clytemnestra never forgets that Agamemnon allowed her daughter Iphigenia to be sacrificed to get a fair wind for Troy. For this, in Euripides's play, she makes the first literal bloodbath of him.
It seems to me that children have always been cherished. But the present cult loves them for a new reason. It insists on children's intimate connection, above all, to a wonderful, free-floating world of the imagination. Their observable fantasy life, their fluid make-believe play seem to give them access to a world of wisdom, and this in turn brings them close to myth and fairy-tale. These ideas were grown in the ground of Romanticism: for Wordsworth, heaven lay about us in our infancy and the child was father to the man.
But it is difficult to grasp how innocence would show itself without adults to influence it. Children play Mummies and Daddies, Doctors and Nurses, Pirates and Soldiers, Cowboys and Indians, Cops and Robbers. How would they play if there were no grown-up to imitate?
The Romantic thirst to recover childlikeness had a huge influence on the growth of interest in children and the activities of their minds. Anthologies with titles like Myths of the Greeks and Romans; Tanglewood Tales; Tales of the Norse Gods and Heroes, all treating myth and legend, began to be produced as children's literature in the last century. The childhood of the species - the era of myth and legend - seemed appropriate for the young. And the heroes of wonder narratives of all kinds gradually became younger, to invite the young listener or reader's identification.
This change had certain serious consequences. The tale of Cupid and Psyche for instance, which later inspired Beauty and the Beast, first appears in the second century, in a ribald metaphysical novel by Apuleius, The Golden Ass: there, it is an adult romance, and Cupid and Psyche have been lovers for some time when Psyche breaks the spell by looking at Cupid in bed with her. The Neoplatonists in the Renaissance allegorised the tale as the spiritual quest of the Soul for love - still no hint of child protagonists or a child audience. But by the 18th century, the romance itself is transformed into the fairy-tale Beauty and the Beast and, filtered through the eyes of a well-meaning governess, it turns into a moral lesson in love, directed at her young charges to prepare them for tricky moments ahead: Beauty is certainly not going to bed with the Beast, but deciding whether they should get engaged.
At the beginning of the 19th century, the Grimm brothers collected the material for their famous collection of German fairy-tales. They relied on a heterogeneous group of sources - members of their own family, servants, a tailor's wife, several landed aristocratic friends - all adults who had continued to pass on the stories in mixed company of men and women, old and young. The Grimms' full title, Children's and Household Tales, retained the hint of a universal audience, but there is no doubt that their pioneering work nourished the concept that such tales belonged in a special way to children. However, the brothers quickly realised that if the tales were to become children's fare, their previous adult entertainment value - sadism, eroticism, cruelty, and immoral distribution of just and unjust desserts - had to be either censored or explained. This led to clipping and tucking and letting in here and letting out there. On the whole, sex was out and violence was in, and lots of it, especially in the form of gleeful retributive justice. The wicked stepmother in 'Snow White' could dance to death in her red-hot shoes, but the Sleeping Beauty - who had borne twins to the prince in earlier versions - could now only be kissed.
The difficulty is that by angling such material at children in particular, the pleasure they took in it marked out bloodthirstiness, fearlessness and even callousness as childish, rather than universally human, characteristics. By making children the heroes and heroines of such fairy-tales, the erotic discoveries and ordeals that many of them describe had to be disinfected, leaving sexuality latent in violent symbols and gory plots.
In the postwar period, psychoanalytic thinkers, such as Bruno Bettelheim in his influential study The Uses of Enchantment, deepened the association of fairy-tale with children, and of cruel fantasy with the childish imagination. Bettelheim affirmed the therapeutic value of struggle and horror for the growing child, arguing that as a small, vulnerable creature suffering from adults' tyranny, it was helpful to read about other small, vulnerable creatures, such as Cinderella, or Tom Thumb, who survived - or better still, won through - against adversity. From this perspective, nothing in fantasy was perceived as too foul or violent. Brightly coloured picture books of 'Cinderella' now include the bloody chopping of one sister's toes and the lopping of the other's heel, and climax with the putting out of the ugly sisters' eyes.
The theory that children need to compensate for their own hapless dependence by imagining themselves as huge and powerful and cruel has also normalised all manner of frightening play-acting, equating children with monsters, and childhood with a savage state. Stephen Jay Gould, the biologist, has pointed out that kids don't have an innate kinship with dinosaurs, but that it has been fostered by intensive marketing; the relationship seems based in some idea of shared primitiveness - and future extinction.
Child protagonists have become so commonplace that the convention has become invisible. In books written for children, from the great Victorian originals like The Water Babies and the two Alice stories to the Billy Bunter and Angela Brazil series, the Famous Five and the Secret Seven, as well as books by rather more original and inspired contemporaries such as Sue Townsend and Joan Aiken with their vivid protagonists Adrian Mole and Dido Twite, it has become axiomatic that the child reader enjoys identifying with a child. Films reaching - successfully - for the family audience also place children centre stage: in almost all Spielberg vehicles and offshoots, from ET to Back to the Future, children outsmart adults; in Jurassic Park, the two kids take the conventional place of the blonde in more adult movies, as victims of the predators on the rampage, until the obligatory ending, when the girl works the computer and saves the day, Enid Blyton-style. Characters like Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, or now Aladdin in the new Disney cartoon, have grown younger as the cinema as a medium grows older.
The tendency isn't limited to the growing market in children's entertainment; the child's eye view has become one of the most adopted and fertile narrative positions in all media: Henry James explored its dense and poignant ironies in his novel What Maisie Knew, still the greatest study of divorce and what the papers call a tug-of-love baby. It is interesting to glance at a list of really successful novels and see just how many adopt a child's eye: from The Catcher in the Rye to Empire of the Sun and, more recently, Ben Okri's The Famished Road and Roddy Doyle's Paddy Clarke Ha Ha Ha. In the cinema, the device gives the camera itself a role: what the child sees, the lens follows, claiming equal impartiality of ignorance or innocence. Again, a list includes highly successful films destined for an adult audience: the big-budget Witness, the arthouse masterpiece The Spirit of the Beehive or Ingmar Bergman's lyrical and tender memoir, Fanny and Alexander, use the central perspective of a child to draw the spectator into a different angle of vision, to make us accept the camera's pristine truthfulness, to intensify the pathos and the drama. By making us as little children, we are helped to shed cynicism and resistance to the material on view, and to mind more, because more is at stake - the image of a child always opens up the horizon to a possible future, and so when the clouds lower, it feels darker.
The nagging, yearning desire to work back to a pristine state of goodness, an Eden of lost innocence, has focused on children. The Spielberg school of film-making flatters the child audience with a picture of their superiority: not only the computer nerd who saves the show in Jurassic Park, but ET's friends, and above all, the hero of Back to the Future who time-travels into the past and finds he has to save his own parents there from making a complete mess of their lives. This admiration for children appeals to them, as box office, of course, as all images of heroism do; but it exaggerates kids' know-how and contributes to the prevailing myth of their apartness, their difference, their unreachability.
Yet, even as I speak, I can hear objections flying thick and fast: for every dozen wonderful innocents in literature or popular culture, there are unsettling figures of youthful untruth and perversity: children today, far from holding up the lit lamp of hope like the little girl in Picasso's Guernica, have become the focus of even greater anxiety and horror than their mothers, than even their single mothers. Michael Jackson was once a child performer of exactly that adorable cuddly cuteness that makes grown-ups purr and coo. Now a boy sprite who won't grow up, he epitomises the intense, risky, paradoxical allure of the Peter Pan myth. He leaps and dances and sings 'I'm Bad', gives his estate the name Neverland, draws the passionate worship of millions of children, and then finds himself accused of child abuse.
We call children 'little devils', 'little monsters', 'little beasts', with the full ambiguous force of the terms, all the complications of love and longing, repulsion and fear. Jesus said 'Suffer the little children to come unto me', and Christianity worships its god as a baby in a manger; the Christian moral tradition has also held, simultaneously, the inherent sinfulness of children. Hilaire Belloc brought off a hilarious parody of Catholic teaching when he presented a child audience with a comic gallery of rogues. Here's Matilda, 'who told such dreadful lies, it made one gasp and stretch one's eyes'; and here's 'John Vavassour de Quentin Jones, who was very fond of throwing stones', and Maria who 'loved to pull a face . . .' until 'One morning she was struck like that: her features took their final mould, in shapes that made your blood run cold.'
Original sin holds up the spectre of innate human wickedness: whatever glosses theologians put on it, Christian children have been raised to believe that without divine help the species is bound for hell.
But the Child has never been seen as such a menacing enemy as today. Never before have children been so saturated with all the power of projected monstrousness to excite repulsion - and even terror. Surveillance cameras register the walk of young killers on their way to acts of unimaginable violence; special seats have to be made to raise these child murderers above the level of the dock; my local paper wails, 'Terror tots attack frail victim'; the most notorious of video nasties is called Child's Play.
Bad children - a symptom of modernity - surface again and again in some of the most powerful contemporary fiction, like Golding's classic Lord of the Flies. In Richard Hughes's A High Wind in Jamaica, in Rumer Godden's The Greengage Summer, and of course in Nabokov's Lolita, children collude erotically with adults, and even betray them; in Doris Lessing's The Fifth Child the evil baby actually wrecks a stable family. Gone are the catapults and squashed toffees and fallen socks of a scallywag such as Just William, the devilry of Dennis the Menace. Horror has spread into teenage fiction, too, with titles such as The Babysitter, The Burning Baby and Dance of the Scalpel.
Although the cultural and social investment in childhood innocence is constantly tested by experience, and assailed by doubts, it continues to grow. The consecration of childhood raises the real-life examples of children to an ideal which they must fail - modestly by simply being ordinary kids, or horrendously, by becoming victims or criminals. But childhood doesn't occupy some sealed Eden or Neverland set apart from the grown-up world: our children can't be better than we are.
Children have never been so visible as points of identification, as warrants of virtue, as markers of humanity. Yet the quality of their lives has been deteriorating for a good 15 years in this country; one of the fastest-growing groups living in poverty are children and their mothers. The same government ministers who sneer about babies on benefit and trumpet a return to basic values cannot see that our social survival as a civilised community depends on stopping this spiralling impoverishment of children's lives.
These attitudes and the appalling problems they bring arise from the concept that childhood and adult life are separate, when they are, in effect, inextricably intertwined. Children are not separate from adults and, unlike Mowgli or Peter Pan, cannot be kept separate; they cannot live innocent lives on behalf of adults, like medieval hermits maintained at court by libertine kings to pray for them, or the best china kept in tissue in the cupboard. Nor can individuals who happen to be young act as the living embodiments of adults' inner goodness, however much adults may wish it. Without paying attention to adults and their circumstances, children cannot begin to meet the hopes and expectations of our torn dreams about what a child and childhood should be. Children are our copy, in little: in Pol Pot's Cambodia they'll denounce their own families; in affluent cities of the West, they'll wail for expensive trainers with the right label like their friend's. The one thing that can be said with absolute certainty about children is that they are very quick to learn.
We know by now that the man is father to the child; we fear that children will grow up to be even more like us than they already are. Kaspar Hauser, the innocent, was murdered; now we are scared that if such a wild child were to appear today he might kill us.
The full text of Marina Warner's Reith Lectures will be published in book form by Vintage on 21 April at pounds 4.99.Reuse content