Boyd Tonkin: This theory could have come from the Soviet era

Virtually all enduring literature operates as a myth, not just the children's classics

Thursday 22 September 2011 21:38 BST

Matthew Arnold called Oxford University the "home of lost causes". Now it looks as if Cambridge wishes to snatch that title. And, if Dr Louise Joy's research on the adult appeal of children's literature has been fairly reported, the cause in question resembles something quite close to the artistic theory of Socialist Realism. So: children's classics fail to tell the truth about childhood. They present an idealised picture of friendship, of language, of early-years experience. In other words, they function as works of the imagination and not as documentary reportage or psychological casebooks. They operate as myth, in fact. But then so does virtually all enduring literature, however naturalistic its trappings and techniques.

But "reality" in art is a moveable feast. This disdain for works that depart from a normative definition of the experience of childhood – and, as historians will tell you, such definitions shift all the time – brings to mind the long-dead days of the Soviet Union of Writers. In 1934, in an infamous fit of dogmatics, it enjoined authors to stick to the "truthful, historically concrete representation of reality". But who defined reality? The Party, of course. Scolding literature for its departure from a presumed yardstick of historical or moral truth always serves an ideological agenda. It began with Plato banning the poets (in The Republic) and has tempted every political policeman since. "Idealised" stories have outlived them all.

Tick off Grahame, or Carroll, or Andersen, or Lindgren – or any long-lasting children's author – for their failure to reflect "real" lives and you both deny the validity of imagination and make implicit claims about all children that themselves belong in the domain of myth – or ideology.

In the meantime, anyone who believes, like Dr Joy, that children's classics enshrine a belief in language as clear, natural and contradiction-free really ought to return to Through the Looking-Glass: "'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less.' 'The question is,' said Alice, 'whether you can make words mean so many different things.' 'The question is,' said Humpty Dumpty, 'which is to be master – that's all.'"

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in