Tales from the little folk provide hangover cure

December 25, 1998

Children's literature is a goldmine for academic research. But first disguise it as folklore, advises James Riordan

Oxford don C. S. Lewis expressed concern about the "silly convention" that caused him to "speak in a playfully apologetic tone about one's enjoyment of children's books". And Lewis knew how to write a rattling good yarn. He possessed a quality that many academic authors lack: the will to communicate with young people.

I have never read Lewis's books on theology; nor the mathematics works by that other Oxford don, the Rev L. Dodgson. Are they as captivating for adult readers as Lewis's and Dodgson's children's books are for a younger audience?

That Oxford looked down its nose at C. S. Lewis when he swapped his theological pen for the Narnia wand is evident from his irritation at being treated as a quirky, mindless populist. Dodgson hid behind the nom de plume of Lewis Carroll.

Yet both authors had a purpose other than entertainment in writing for children. As a zealous Christian, Lewis made no bones about writing children's stories to spread the Word. His intention was to show the triumph of light over darkness in Christian allegory. As for the more complex Carroll, his mission was to expose Victorian hypocrisy and dictates - both of which Alice challenges so delightfully in Wonderland. Through Alice, the author aspired to give middle-class women an independent spirit; he advocated their admission to university, albeit in segregated colleges.

Lewis and Carroll were by no means the only academic minds containing children's stories bursting to leap out. J. R. R. Tolkien began writing The Hobbit while professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, and completed The Lord of the Rings when professor of English at Merton College. And it shows: into the pot he drops scraps of history, religion, legends, dreams and magic - out of which can come almost anything.

For besides time and energy, academics also have scholarly gifts to share with an audience way beyond the cloisters. Thus, ancient and modern language scholars have the opportunity to translate the treasures of Greek and Egyptian, Norse and Ojibway, Russian and Hausa.

That was my doorway into children's literature. Having had Russian thrust upon me in National Service, I realised that university was infinitely preferable to my old job of stacking beer crates. And in a roundabout way that brought me to a banquet in Svardlovsk in the Ural mountains. I was not the first foreigner to lose to the vodka bottle. While recovering in my hotel bed, I was soothed by schoolchildren telling me folk tales. It was not an ideal cure for a hangover, but it inspired me to produce a tribute in my first book of folktales.

Many bottles of vodka later I gathered enough tales to publish a second volume. What I discovered during my five years of research in Russian villages, apart from a will to communicate with children, was salutary. To reproduce the flavour of the stories it was essential to see, hear, smell and taste the surroundings, as well as understand the culture; yet language grew less important. The empathy between storyteller and listener can sometimes transcend the language barrier. I later experienced this in the presence of Chukchi shamans in walrus-skin tents in Kamchatka, and of Inuit and other native people in North America.

At this stage of writing I was still able to employ the label of academic research. For folklore is a musty, respectable medium. I even gained grants from august research bodies for my trips. But sometimes I had to use the cover of more "serious" pursuits: the research assessment exercise is wary of anything connected with children. So Russian kulaks, youth culture, sport and sex (necessitating extensive fieldwork) covered my tracks, while taking me to other exotic places - producing collections of Korean and Irish tales.

I made another odd discovery. It was easier to publish an academic book for a few hundred readers than a children's book for several thousand. Thus, my folktales of the British Isles had to be published in Moscow as a teaching aid, and my collection of native American tales gathered from reservations over 20 years only saw light of day when artist Michael Foreman supported the book with his illustrations (we then ran into a boycott of the book in parts of North America because we were not "natives" and because my heretical assertion that the native people had their origin in Central Asia did not fit contemporary lore).

While "translating" stories from other cultures, I was sometimes asked to "modernise" English texts. King Arthur was a treat because it meant delving beyond the 14th-century Middle English poem of Sir Gawain and the Greene Knight into the Latin of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain and Vita Merlini, as well as French and German Arthurian romances.

Gulliver's Travels, however, was a mere 300-year journey back in time. Here was yet another academic, Jonathan Swift, who had turned to fiction to make a political point more widely. Many dons would sympathise: he had just been turned down for promotion, he hated the government for its cant and hypocrisy, he was suffering agonies from piles and boils, and he had become deaf and giddy. His doctor attested he was "of unsound mind and memory". No wonder he produced a book that Thackeray described as "filthy in word, filthy in thought, furious, raging and obscene". With rave notices like that, it quickly became a bestseller and had the censor lopping chunks off it.

Updating Swift brought me more royalties than my dozen academic books put together. If I could make Gulliver digestible to today's youngsters, maybe I could do the same with Tolstoy, Lenin, even Yeltsin for my students. It also sowed the germ of an idea to write my own novel for children.

If there is one lesson I have learned in combining my two writing jobs, it is that many of us academics work too much on our own, or with our own kind. What we hear is often the echo of our own voices. Too often we hand down opinions that we deem significant for lesser mortals to accept, rather than joining with others, children included, to sharpen our wits and broaden our knowledge of the real world.

The danger is that, without the will to communicate, we can end up talking only to ourselves.

James Riordan is professor of Russian studies at the University of Surrey.His first novel published earlier this year, Sweet Clarinet, has been shortlisted for the Children's Whitbread Prize.

No Go the Bogeyman, p20


Russell Stannard

Stannard was for 20 years head of physics at the Open University. He had his first book for children rejected 17 times. But the 18th publisher he sent it to, Faber, realised that it had a bestseller on its hands. It sold out three weeks after publication.

Since then Uncle Albert, Stannard's fictional creation, has explained relativity and quantum theory to children in several more hugely popular books.

Stannard, who is also a reader in the Church of England, thoroughly researched child psychology to find out how children think before putting pen to paper. He was motivated partly by an urge to spread the scientific gospel.

Philip Pullman

Until recently Pullman was an academic at Westminster College, Oxford, lecturing would-be English teachers. But the success of his 1996 children's book, Northern Lights (which won the Carnegie Medal), prompted him to give up the day-job and turn his attention to writing full-time.

The book - a mix of sci-fi and dark fantasy - has sparked comparisons with J. R. R. Tolkein's The Lord of the Rings, winning it an excited readership among adults as well as children.

Northern Lights was the first in Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. The second, The Subtle Knife, is in paperback. The final book is due before the end of the century.

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