Friday, October 13, 2006

Four British Fantasists - Charles Butler

Charles Butler's Four British Fantasists: Place and Culture in the Children's Fantasies of Penelope Lively, Alan Garner, Diana Wynne Jones, and Susan Cooper is a thoughtful and thought-provoking study. I have written elsewhere of the frustration of reading scholarly works that seem only to draw attention to how clever the scholar is - fortunately Butler's book does the exact opposite (although no one should doubt that Butler is clever.) Four British Fantasists draws attention to the skill of the authors about whom Butler is writing and sends the reader (back) to the books of Garner, Cooper, Jones and Lively that are being discussed.

This study is divided into five chapters, but rather than devoting one chapter to each separate author, Butler has largely written about all four authors together in each chapter (chapter 4 is slightly different, but more on that later). The first chapter, "Contexts and Connections" introduces the reader to the links between these four, apparently disparate writers: all four began their careers during what's often referred to as the "second Golden Age" of children's literature (in the 1960s and 1970s) and they were contemporaries at Oxford University, although only Jones and Cooper read English, Lively having chosen History and Garner the Classics (although he did not complete his degree). All four also grew up during the Second World War and Butler looks at the significance of this conflict for their writing.

Chapter two, "Applied Archaeology", looks in detail at the four related disciplines of geology, archaeology, landscape history and paleontology, and considers how these disciplines have fed the imaginations of the four fantasists, creating memorable tales that are told with confidence and a close attention to details.

Chapter three, "Longing and Belonging", considers the way in which the four authors present issues of authenticity, belonging and respect in the context of modern British life. Butler discusses, amongst others, Garner's Strandloper, Wynne Jones' The Homeward Bounders, Lively's The House at Norham Gardens and The Driftway, and Cooper's Mandrake. Butler also discusses the way the four fantasists represent race and culture in their novels.

Chapter four, "Myth and Magic", discusses the authors' choice of fantasy and the supernatural as the modes within which they (mostly) write. Butler looks at their use of folk traditions and folklore, in particular their appropriation and use of myths (not all of them British myths). It is in this chapter that Butler takes the opportunity to discuss each author in a separate section as he looks at the use each one makes of magic and myth in their novels.

Chapter five, "Conclusion: Writing for Children", considers what it means for the four fantasists to be best known as writers of children's books; in particular he looks at some of the claims made about the four fantasists by children's literature critics (especially Jacqueline Rose's The Case of Peter Pan, or, the Impossibility of Children's Literature).

This is a well-crafted, detailed study of four well-known British children's fantasy authors whose work has had a lasting impact on children's literature in Britain and elsewhere (including on Butler's own novels). It references interviews which Butler conducted with all four authors, as well current and older criticism. It was a pleasure to read, as well as an inspiration to go to the books under discussion, and it is a pleasure to recommend this book.

Four British Fantasists is published by Scarecrow Press, with the Children's Literature Association.


Anonymous said...

That sounds wonderful, Michele! I'll have to try and get it, because I love all four authors and it sounds like a sensible and absorbing study. Thanks for the review.

Michele said...

It really is both sensible and absorbing. And send me rushing to the library for more of Cooper's books, as I'd only previously read "The Dark is Rising" sequence, and more of Lively's, although I was in the process of starting to read more of her books anyway after picking up The Ghost of Thomas Kempe again after a very, very long time !

For me, that's the best kind of scholarly writing - it sends you (back) to authors to read them with new eyes...

Anonymous said...

I just finished Cooper's latest, Victory, which I enjoyed very much. It reminded me of how good a writer she is. I discovered on her website that Dawn of Fear is autobiographical, and that made me want to find it and reread it.

Michele said...

I've got Victory and Dawn of Fear on their way from branch libraries as the Central lending library didn't have either one on their shelves...