Books for children: history, folk-tale, and legend

May 13, 2015

Over the past few months I’ve read several good books for children on historical and legendary subjects, and I pass on a few notes:

crossbowsCrossbows & Crucifixes
Henry Garnett
(Sophia Institute, 2008) [1962]
187 p.

Originally published in the early 1960s as A Trumpet Sounds, this book tells the story of Nicholas Thorpe, a fifteen-year old Catholic boy in Elizabethan England who joins the underground effort to provide safe passage and hiding places for priests. Set mostly in rural locations, it follows Nicholas’ introduction to the recusant communities and his growing identification with their aims. It is a nicely imagined story that lets a good deal of real history in around the edges. The story does meander a little, and the book as a whole would have been stronger if it had a more clearly defined structure. Still, it’s a good story that introduces a young (age 10?) reader to a group of brave people struggling to save the good that they have known. Incidentally, I think the author’s name must be a pseudonym.

kingsley-heroesThe Heroes
Greek Fairy Tales for my Children
Charles Kingsley
(William Clowes, 1932) [1856]
200 p.

Charles Kingsley is most well-known today for his (rather strange, I am told) book The Water-Babies, but I have enjoyed this realization of three classic Greek tales: the story of Perseus, focusing on his quest to slay Medusa; the story of Jason and the Argonauts in search of the Golden Fleece; and the life of Theseus, including the account of his adventure with Ariadne’s thread in the labyrinth of the Minotaur. Kingsley tells the stories with a certain archness that I found distracting only at first. I like that he emphasizes the courage, virtue, and greatness of his heroes; there is no trace of a reflexive egalitarianism here. He lets his heroes be heroes. Naturally there is a considerable amount of violence in these stories; Kingsley doesn’t underline it, but he doesn’t avoid it either. The elevated tone of the prose might make it challenging for an inexperienced reader. The prologue and epilogue are unequivocally Christian, despite the pagan origins of the tales sandwiched between. I’m happy to have read it, and will encourage my children to read it when the time comes. I found this old copy at a second-hand booksale.

perrault-fairy-talesFairy Tales
Charles Perrault
(Dover, 1969) [1697]
117 p.

A superb collection of fairy tales, including those about Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, Tom Thumb, and Puss in Boots — but not for children, not young children anyway. Often violent, with feints at incest and cannibalism, they are a bridge too far for this father. But considered as stories for more mature readers, they are excellent. Classics are classics for a reason.

canton-saintsA Child’s Book of Saints
William Canton
(St. Augustine Academy, 2013) [1898]
268 p.

This is a find. It was apparently out of print until St. Augustine Academy Press brought it back a few years ago in a high-quality reproduction of the original 1898 printing. Canton has written a series of elegant stories about saints, drawing heavily but not exclusively on legendary material. Although I have not checked it, I expect that some of these stories are from The Golden Legend or similar sources, but others (“The King Orgulous”) sound as though they could be part of the same folk-tale tradition that the Brothers Grimm explored.

Almost without exception they are superb little stories, with a gentle spirit and an eye for grace and beauty. Even if they are not stories about actual people, they are imaginative explorations of the allure of goodness, and that is no small thing. My enthusiasm is dampened only by the affected antiquarian tone that seeps in here and there. It is there, I know, to elevate the stories into a realm beyond the ordinary, and normally I appreciate that, but Canton’s ear is not perfect, and the prose sometimes sounds overripe. That aside, I intend to read these stories to my kids when they’re a little older.

sutcliff-arthurianThe Sword and the Circle
The Light Beyond the Forest
The Road to Camlann
Rosemary Sutcliff
(Puffin, 1994) [1979-81]
272 + 144 + 144 p.

This marvellous trilogy covers the full span of Arthurian lore, from the rise of Uther Pendragon and Merlin to the death of Arthur and final collapse of the company of the Knights of the Round Table. The stories are drawn mostly from Malory’s Arthurian corpus, with the addition of a few tales such as those of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the tragedy of Tristan and Iseult. The first volume tells of the formation of the Knights of the Round Table and their adventures in the first flowerings of their chivalric enterprise. The second volume is about the quest for the Holy Grail, and the way in which the quest began to fragment the company of knights. In the final volume the fault lines widen and war breaks out between Arthur and Lancelot, leading to the final end of Arthur’s reign.

I have nothing but good things to say. I have read a fair bit in the Arthurian tradition, from Malory to Tennyson, but I’ve not enjoyed anything more than I enjoyed this. The books are billed as being for children, and, it is true, they would be suitable for children, but there is nothing in them to deter an adult’s enjoyment as well. For the first time I feel that I have a good understanding of the overall shape of the Arthurian stories; rather than just being a conglomeration of tales, they follow an arc. Sutcliff’s writing is rich and often striking, bringing out memorable details and pausing to dwell on moments that Malory, for instance, passes over quickly. She follows her sources closely, but brings something of the novelist’s art to her rendering. The language respects the intelligence of the reader.

As in the medieval sources, there is a strong Catholic undercurrent in these stories. I was glad that Sutcliff didn’t strip it out. Did you know that in later life, after his career as the flower of Christian chivalry had run its course, Lancelot became a priest? I didn’t.

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