Sunday 14 April 2013

Dead witches, past and present

I'm not going to blog about the death of Thatcher - there's enough of that about. But it is a trigger: there has been lots of public display and speaking-out. I find celebration of anyone's death distasteful and demeaning (to the celebrator), but the acceleration of Ding Dong the Witch is Dead up the charts is an interesting display of the public turning to art as a means of social protest and expressing dissent. Who'd have thought The Wizard of Oz would end up as social satire? (Well, Henry Littlefield, who believed it started as political satire on 1890s Populism: "The Wizard of Oz: Parable on Populism", American Quarterly 16 (1): 47–58)

Thatcher provided a rich seam for satirists during her years in office. Fortunately, whatever else we think of Britain, we do have a society in which artists are relatively free to write political satire. We won't be sent to a gulag if we write an allegory of some political or social abuse. In children's books, satire and allegory are considered dodgy, dangerous, insidious. Many people criticise the Narnia books because of their hidden, right-wing, Christian agenda. But right-wing Christianity was the dominant ideology of the time, so Lewis wasn't doing a whole lot more corrupting than mainstream schools were - it's the concealed nature of the message that makes people anxious. Still, the Chronicles of Narnia are allegorical rather than satirical: not all allegory is satire (though a lot of satire is allegorical).

Lewis might have felt Christianity was under threat, but it was hardly in its death throes in the 1950s. Often, allegory and particularly satire are the voice of the powerless or of those who want to say something unpopular. Arthur Miller didn't write about witch-hunts in The Crucible without regard to the McCarthy witch-hunts of the 1950s (though astonishingly the Wikipedia entry on The Crucible doesn't mention the satirical aspect of the play).

(Have you noticed how all these use witches? Bit lazy, isn't it?)

Don't we all, to some degree, put our own political/religious/moral views into our books? Or raise the questions we think children need to think about?

Raising questions is not telling someone what to think, but any group that is aware of its fragile hold on the public, or aware at some level that there is something wrong with its policies or promoted beliefs, always takes raising a topic for discussion as a form of attack. After all, if everyone was happy, we wouldn't need to examine it, would we? Except we would, because that's how we make sure whatever we have chosen is still fit for purpose. The unexamined life is not worth living, and all that.

In a story I'm working on at the moment, there is a lot about the Victorian poor. I am not standing on a box saying 'look, kids, you can see this happening around you.' But the perceptive child will think, 'Hang on, I've seen people sleeping in subways. That's not just what happened 150 years ago. But the people sleeping in subways now aren't sort-of dead. Are they?' The book does have satirical intent. Whether that will make it hard to publish, I don't know. You can never tell why something is or isn't published.

So - allegory and satire in children's books. Dangerous and insidious? Corrupting and brainwashing? Or encouraging the next generation to examine their socio-political context and think about the issues society expects them to miraculously know about at age 18 when they get their voting card? What do you think?

1 comment:

  1. As the author of two books showing same sex parents, which have been vilified by the Catholic press in Italy, I am very pleased to see you making the clear distinction between evangelising and raising issues/reflecting society!

    Nicely-thought-through piece.