Stuart Little, Harry Potter, and Allegorical Satire

I missed The Lion and the Mouse: The battle that reshaped children’s literature (Jill Lepore July 21, 2008) when it ran this summer in The New Yorker but I recommend it to you for two reasons:

First, it is a fascinating story in the history of children’s literature. I’m not sure who strikes me as more self-important and politically correct, the librarian or White’s wife, the critic, but this telling of their battle, though written to show Mrs. White as the champion of everything good, is an allegory of the two minds most have about “kid lit.” Both, unfortunately, have moral and ultimately political agendas for young hearts and minds very different than the best writers; Suess/Geisl and White are not on par with Lewis, MacDonald, or Rowling because they were aiming much lower.

Second, there is this aside in the history:

Sometimes, books labelled juvenile are, instead, antique. Children’s literature, at least in the West, is utterly bound up in the medieval, as Seth Lerer, a Stanford literature professor, argues in “Children’s Literature: A Reader’s History from Aesop to Harry Potter.” Lots of books for kids are about the Middle Ages (everything from “The Hobbit” to “Robin Hood” and “Redwall”), but the conventions of the genre (allegory, moral fable, romance, and heavy-handed symbolism) are also themselves distinctly premodern. It’s not only that many books we shelve as “children’s literature”—Grimms’ Fairy Tales or “Gulliver’s Travels” or “Huck Finn”—were born as biting political satire, for adults; it’s also that books written for children in the twentieth century tend to be distinctly, willfully, and often delightfully antimodern. “The Phantom Tollbooth” has more in common with “The Pilgrim’s Progress” than it does with “On the Road.” Lurking in the stacks of every “children’s library” are dozens of literary impostors: satires, from ages past, hiding their fangs; and shiny new books, dressed up in some very old clothes.

Two notes struck here are more important for Potter-philes than the rest of the article — children’s literature as allegorical satire and antimodern — because Ms. Rowling’s Hogwarts adventure stories are precisely this. Of the four levels of meaning we are obliged to read intentionally layered texts, the bottom two, the allegorical and anagogical or iconographic meanings, are the stuff of Ms. Rowling’s antimodern criticism and greater artistry.

Your thoughts about The New Yorker article and your comments and correction about my hurried assertion sans argument are welcome as always.


  1. Well, it was an interesting article. I thought the main problem in examining children’s books lies not with children but with adults. Specifically adults who have no imagination, whether they be Christians or atheists, intellectuals or uneducated, experts or non-experts in literature.

    The thing I gathered mostly about EB White was that he held a higher opinion about the ability of children to read & comprehend than most of the rest of society did. The idea that children have to be protected from certain things is certainly a big problem, just not then but now too. I think of the people who are banning tag because it’s too physical or making sure every game ends in a tie so that nobody feels like a loser. It seems like children are being protected from actually living & confronting the problems of life so that they can grow up in their understanding. We end up with permanent children or adult children.

    There was a point in the article that was just glossed over, about how the idea of childhood as we know it is really a relatively recent phenomena. I read something by Neil Postman once about the history of childhood which was pretty interesting & helpful to understanding where we’ve been, where we are now, & where we might go.

    Just some random thoughts. Not too sure how helpful they are.

  2. Fascinating article. I read the *Letters of Ursula Nordstrom* a few years back; she’s a fascinating and sometimes overlooked figure in the history of American children’s literature (she edited White and Wilder and discovered Sendak, among other things).

    The idea quoted from Lerer’s book is interesting indeed, both in itself and in the way it connects to Harry Potter. One thing I’ve been noticing lately is a huge trend in middle-grade fiction toward the re-writing of fairy-tales in a distinctly medieval kind of world (though usually fictional countries and no specific dates). Diane Stanley and Shannon Hale are my favorites thus far – their stories often have fantasy elements and are definitely pre-modern. Wonder what this might say about postmodern hunger (spiritual hunger, story hunger).

  3. Beth wrote, “their stories often have fantasy elements and are definitely pre-modern. Wonder what this might say about postmodern hunger (spiritual hunger, story hunger).”

    That’s a great point, Beth. I was wondering reading this article, & also the Lewis’ toolshed meditation, what’s so wrong with premodernism? It certainly had a much more numinous & sacramental view of life & reality. Whereas postmodernism seems so fraught with cynicism & uncertainty brought about by deconstructing everything to death.

  4. There’s nothing wrong with premodernism, actually. It is counter-cultural in our modern/postmodern age. This denial is best illustrated for those who have read Narnia in the difference between Eustace Scrubb (who very nearly deserved his name!) and the Pevensie children. Which would you rather be?

    The world has resoundingly voted to join the Pevensies! Even Eustace did!

  5. All except Susan. When we last see her Susan is caught in the struggle between being modern/postmodern versus premodern. It is sad that a lot of commentators think and have written that Susan doesn’t get into to Narnia because of “growing up” and attribute it to the onset of sexual interest. I think that Lewis’ is strongly commenting on modern society which focuses on the ephemeral (symbolized by lipstick, high heels, etc – and what is more ephemeral than fashion?) and Susan’s limiting herself to a merely modern sensibility and reducing the premodern worldview to games and fairy tales and “mere” stories. Susan is like Dante seen “caught in a dark wood”. Only her wood/world has reduced to mere leaves on trees and she has lost the idea of the forest, the far greater reality. Having had a Narnian sensibility, we may hope that she awakens and finds her way back to Aslan’s Mountain from which all worlds are.

  6. You’ve hit the nail on the head, inked! It wasn’t Susan growing up that was the problem. Peter was growing up too, studying hard for exams with Professor Kirke. Edmund & Lucy were growing up, learning new things & being involved in school. It’s that Susan as she grew up forgot about Narnia while the others never did. And the lipstick & nylons & boys were _all_ that Susan ended up caring about because they seemed to be the only real world.

    Again, great comments. It amazes me that so many people fail to see what’s so clearly obviously going on with Susan & instead get hung up on the sex stuff. Oh wait, I guess they’re modernists, too! 🙂

  7. Arabella Figg says

    What first jumped out at me in this wander-y article was this: “the “young fry” read nothing but “the trashy”: Scott, Cooper, and Dickens (one century’s garbage being, as ever, another century’s Great Books.” Hmm…what will those in the 22nd Century have to say about ivory-tower snobs who lambasted Harry Potter?

    The second was what you noted, John.

    What “gatekeepers” don’t realize is that kids will and do find ways around the restrictive, artificial gates put before them.

    Thank you, Inked, for your words about Susan. I had never considered, before Lev Grossman’s dreadful Rowling interview, that Susan was denied Narnia because of sex. Truly silly. Susan was naturally growing up and discovering the world. Unfortunately, in leaving childhood behind, she had also shelved her child-like faith *for the time being* (for all we know) as do many adolescents.

    Was she sinful for wanting to visit cousins in America? For wanting to be a grownup (the desire of most teens)? Was it a tragedy she wasn’t killed with all her family? We read The Last Battle and root for the Pevensies. But really, their adventures happen because they’re *all dead.* For Susan, left behind as mourner, judgmentally condemned for interest in petty superficialities by her loved ones, I have only sympathy. I do believe she found her way to adult faith.

    That said, I do agree that Lewis was saying something important about soulless modern life and rampant postwar materialism. Also about dismissing faith as childish fantasy.

    I certainly agree with the premodern longings idea. It’s interesting to see the revival and reexamination of fairy tales, whether in plays (Wicked), movies (Enchanted) and numerous books. Donna Jo Napoli has written three excellent young adult reimaginings: Beast (Beauty and the Beast), Zel (Rapunzel) and Spinners (Rumplestiltskin). Jane Yolen’s Briar Rose is simply stunning.

    Fullatricks knows she’s stunning, you don’t have to tell her…

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