Tuesday, October 20, 2009

In Days Of Old, When Knights Were Bold, And Voice Hadn't Been Invented

Farah Mendlesohn, an academic and critic who has written about fantasy, among other things, has started a new blog devoted to the work of British author Geoffrey Trease. In her first post at The Trease Project, Farah says Trease (who I'd never heard of), "set out to write a new form of history for children, which didn't focus on great men and women, but on the you and me of history."

Well, didn't that just speak to me. I've never gotten over my first history class as a college freshman, which was taught by a professor whose car license plate was stamped "Bodo," the name of a medieval French peasant living at the time of Charlemagne. Pretty much all I took away from that class was the importance of the so-called common man. That was enough.

Farah also spoke to me when she said she planned to read and blog about "everything Geoffrey Trease wrote (fiction and non-fiction) in the order in which he wrote it, at the same time, reading contemporary discussions about the teaching of history." Everything that's obsessive about me loved that.

I sought out what I could find of Trease's work and ended up reading The Barons' Hostage. It was originally published in 1952, so it will be a while before Farah gets to it, since Trease started publishing in the 1930s.

I found The Barons' Hostage kind of flat in style but also readable. In the article from British Children's Historical Novels, linked to above, the author says of him, "If there is a criticism to be made of his writing I would say that it lacks emotional depth; intensity wasn't his style, and his understated approach has its own strengths." I think that pretty much hits the nail on the head...lacking emotional depth and intensity and understated. I would say the book also seemed lacking in voice, though that might not have been a big issue in the time it was written. Nowadays when voice is so important in children's books, it was striking by its absence.

The Barons' Hostage tells the story how Edward I, while still a prince, was held hostage by his uncle, Simon de Montfort, who was leading a baronial revolt against Edward's father, Henry III. Two child characters are added for child interest, but as I read this book, I felt that the story about the kids was just an excuse to tell the rather charismatic Edward's story. In fact, if you follow the links on Edward I and Henry III and scroll down on the material it leads to until you find the name "Simon de Montfort," you'll find the basic storyline for The Barons' Hostage.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. When I was a kid, I loved historical kings and queens. By which I mean real ones, none of this fairy king and queen business. I probably would have sucked this book up. In fact, reading it a few weeks ago led me to research these two kings and Simon de Montfort, none of whom I knew anything about.

Reading this book and what Farah has had to say so far at The Trease Project has raised still more questions for me about what a historical novel should be, particularly what a historical novel for children should be. The whole story of children's historical fiction having its own history--how fascinating is that!?

Simon de Monfort has quite a web presence. And get this...his father, also Simon de Montfort, fought against the Cathars. The Cathars appear in the second book of The Youngest Templar serial.

How bizarre is it that I would be reading about all this linked stuff this fall? I love it when this kind of thing happens!


david elzey said...

I came across Trease's name while reading "Should We Burn Babar?: Essays on Children's Literature and the Power of Stories" by Herbert Kohl a few years back. I was able to track down a copy of "Bows Against the Barons" which is a retelling of the Robin Hood legend from the perspective of a boy caught poaching who is taken up by Robin's gang. The story, aside from it's historical perspectives, has a most decided pro-socialist representation of Robin and his gang and presents the adventure as a labor-versus-bosses struggle.

As you found, Trease writing is indeed flat, but who else is telling history to younger readers these days with a perspective that is decidedly non-neutral politically? Could such a book be published today?

Gail Gauthier said...

Both Farah Mendlesohn and the article in British Children's Historical Novels bring up Trease's politics.

My kneejerk response to your last questions is that I believe that historical fiction, whether for children or adults, should be written in a polically neutral way. When I was young and impressionable, I read that any kind of propaganda doesn't serve literature, and I've always agreed with that. Just as moral lessons should be taught from the pulpit and not in fiction, political discussions should be saved for campaigns, not novels.

In reality though, I'd agree with anyone who argued that the political views of writers of historical fiction probably leak into their work simply because of the events and people they choose to write about. As a reader, I sure don't want to be bashed over the head with them.

david elzey said...

I agree... and then again, I wonder. I think there's room for classic literature and history to be reinterpreted and viewed through different lenses.

But it gets tricky. I don't feel accuracy should be sacrificed for the sake of political agendas. History for children already feels like its filtered and watered down through publisher's anxieties about offending people.

So I say: cover the bases. Release two books on every subject, viewed from different perspectives, let the readers decide and recoup from both audiences.

As for propaganda, we used to actually teach that to school children back in the 1930s: how to recognize and question it, how not to fall under its sway. I think it's time we reintroduced the concept and make children more critical thinkers and aware readers.

Gail Gauthier said...

I think historical fiction for children often reads as if the creators have an agenda re. instruction about historical fact. It's okay if the characters are stereotypes for the period, if the prairie storyline has been done a hundred times before, or if there's virtually no storyline at all, so long as the historical setting is well done. Everything else is forgiven.

I have to hand it to Trease as far as the book I read was concerned--while I did feel I was getting a historical lesson, I felt there was a real storyline (though about the historical figures, not the kid characters who, nowadays, we would want to be the focus of the book), and the historical characters, at least, were interesting. I wasn't bored. Maybe that was because he chose a particularly significant bit of history to write about or one that I, as an American, wasn't familiar with.

Regarding propaganda: Unfortunately, the word connotes something negative. We forget that propaganda can also be used to support a good cause. We often assume that if the ax an author is grinding is one that we, ourselves, approve of, we're not talking propaganda. I agree that we should be teaching children to recognize it, in whatever form it takes.