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Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature

November 15, 2015

Oxford Companion to Childrens LiteratureWayne writes: In the July/August number of the Children’s Books History Society (CBHS) Newsletter, Peter Hunt reviewed the second edition (2015) of The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature, edited by Daniel Hahn. The first edition of this work, edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Mari Prichard, was published by Oxford University Press (OUP) in 1984, with corrections made in its second printing that same year. In my review of the first edition in Beyond Bree for June 1987, I called it ‘an indispensable guide to its subject’, though I noted errors, ‘inevitably in a book of this length’ (xiv + 588 pp.), and that the authors injected personal opinion – this struck me (at the time) as unusual in a reference book – and had ‘a pronounced leaning toward British children’s literature to the reduction or exclusion, especially, of much American material’. Peter Hunt, a noted authority on children’s literature, dearly hoped to find (as he writes) the second edition ‘a worthy successor’ to the original, as did I; but while ‘for the non-expert reader, this is a perfectly adequate product’, Hunt concludes that those seriously interested in the subject would find better value in a second-hand copy of the first edition, if they did not already have it, supplemented by other reference works, thus avoiding ‘the need for anti-apoplexy tablets’.

Brian Alderson is even more critical of the new edition in his CBHS Newsletter editorial, in which he questions ‘the usefulness of the whole gigantic exercise’. One could be cynical and say that it’s useful to OUP to keep the book ‘fresh’, to encourage new buyers, but Alderson’s point is well taken. Even though, as Daniel Hahn notes, there has been ‘dramatic change’ in the field of children’s literature in the past thirty years, the coverage in the new edition is still disappointingly limited and no less idiosyncratic than it was in 1984. There are ‘more than 900 new headwords’, i.e. new entries, said to be in the new edition, of which ‘the most substantial’ is that for ‘Harry Potter’. Well and good: but the new edition, built on the foundation of the old, adds only 75 pages, while the font is now comparatively larger and the number of lines per column is smaller, and older entries are often abridged to make room for the new – for example, those for Madeleine L’Engle (which, however, now more properly describes her sequels to A Wrinkle in Time) and C.S. Lewis (which still, unaccountably, includes no mention of Pauline Baynes, whose illustrations account for a good share of the success of the Narnia books; on the other hand, the entry for Diana Wynne Jones is now double its old length, and does her more justice, though it is not correct to say that Jones’s work achieved ‘a global audience’ only when Studio Ghibli adapted to film Howl’s Moving Castle in 2004). Hahn admits that ‘half a million words might seem like a generous amount of space, but given the book’s scope it feels barely adequate’; in fact, it is not even barely adequate. Perhaps more has been done, or will be done, in the electronic, subscription-access version of the work, which I have not seen. An adequate edition in print would run to several volumes.

Although Hahn claims that ‘errors in the old volume have been corrected’, he must mean some errors, because there are many which remain – or, if not errors, at least arguable points. Upon purchasing the new edition I looked first at three entries on which I can speak with authority.

For Pauline Baynes, the revised entry adds her date of death, truncates her biography, and alters the rest, though much remains of the original text by Carpenter and Prichard (both still credited, along with Hahn, on the title-page of the new edition). It is still said that the first book illustrated by Baynes was Farmer Giles of Ham by J.R.R. Tolkien (1949); Carpenter and Prichard, and now Hahn, were evidently unaware of her art, starting in 1942, for several of the Perry Colour Books (for which series there is no entry; the similar and more famous Puffin Picture Books is still only briefly mentioned, under ‘Puffin books’). Nor had they heard, apparently, of mainstream publishers such as Country Life and Blackie who commissioned Baynes years before she worked with Tolkien – though Farmer Giles of Ham was, certainly, her breakthrough achievement. It is also still claimed that ‘as a result of Tolkien’s recommendation she was taken on by C.S. Lewis and his publisher to illustrate the Narnia books’, but there is no evidence that Tolkien recommended her. Lewis told her that she was recommended by a bookshop assistant as the best children’s book illustrator, or the best artist of children and animals (accounts vary), while Baynes always believed that he chose her simply because she had illustrated Farmer Giles for his friend Tolkien. In regard to another surviving statement, ‘the maps and other ephemera that [Baynes] produced as adjuncts to The Lord of the Rings, at the height of popular enthusiasm for that book’, her work for The Lord of the Rings consists of a tiny drawing for a newspaper advertisement, one poster-map (another was for The Hobbit), and a ‘triptych’ illustration for the slipcase of a deluxe edition, later adapted for paperback covers, so is more limited than the entry suggests; and The Lord of the Rings has been popular since it was published, so there is no sense in trying to pin down any ‘height of enthusiasm’, which in any case has reached probably greater levels in later years than in the late sixties and early seventies, the period to which the Companion refers.

The entry for Arthur Ransome has been seriously truncated, omitting mention of many of his activities and interests that informed his writing for children – reading, acquaintances, the Lord Alfred Douglas lawsuit, fishing. Peel Island was, in fact, only one ‘original of Wild Cat Island in Swallows and Amazons’. On Ransome’s ‘escape’ to Russia, ‘for little reason other than that it was far away’, both editions pass over his hope to tell stories – his desire ‘to learn enough Russian to be able to read Russian folklore in the original and to tell those stories in the simple language that they seemed to need’, as Ransome states in his Autobiography.

In the new entry for J.R.R. Tolkien, the description of his life has been only lightly truncated, perhaps out of deference to Carpenter’s authority as the author of the standard biography of Tolkien. Even so, it would have been good to have revised some points. As in the original edition, it is said that ‘by the time [Tolkien] graduated from Oxford with a First Class in 1915, he was . . . the possessor of at least two complete languages of his own, supposedly spoken by elves’; in fact, although Tolkien began to develop Quenya and Sindarin early on, neither should be referred to as ‘complete’, particularly at that early a date, as much later scholarship into Tolkien’s linguistic creation has shown.

In regard to the phrase ‘“Middle-Earth” (supposedly the planet Earth at an earlier age)’, Carpenter knew better: Middle-earth (correct spelling) is only one part of the planet, which Tolkien called Arda (which is indeed supposed to be the Earth). The original statement ‘it was apparently the death of two school friends during the Battle of the Somme that directly inspired him to begin work in earnest on The Silmarillion’ has subsequently been argued (post-Carpenter and Prichard) by biographer John Garth, but remains arguable as a matter of degree. Having begun to develop his ‘legendarium’ early on, there is no reason to think that Tolkien would not have continued with it in any case. It is also arguable whether his experience in the trenches ‘drove him even further into his imaginative creation’ rather than ‘turn his attention to “real life”’. He was able to ‘begin work in earnest’ mainly because he was invalided home with trench fever. It is said that ‘he made no attempt to publish [The Silmarillion]’ and later, reference is made to ‘The Silmarillion, which he now [after The Lord of the Rings] wished to publish’, discounting or overlooking Tolkien’s submission of elements of ‘The Silmarillion’ to Allen & Unwin as a successor to The Hobbit and his strong desire in the 1950s that The Silmarillion and The Lord of the Rings be published together as one great ‘Saga of the Three Jewels and the Rings of Power’.

To say that ‘the process of composition [of The Lord of the Rings] was long and difficult and was only sustained because of the encouragement of C.S. Lewis’ places too much emphasis on Lewis: the work was sustained as much by the interest of Tolkien’s son Christopher, to whom Tolkien sent parts of the work in progress while Christopher was on active service in World War Two, and ultimately by Tolkien’s personal investment in his creation.

‘Pauline Baynes also illustrated [in addition to Farmer Giles of Ham] Tolkien’s 1962 collection of verse, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil]’ omits her art for Smith of Wootton Major as well as her binding designs and posters for The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. ‘The Lord of the Rings was eventually finished in 1949’: yes, finished in draft, but not yet revised or completed, especially in regard to the Appendices. (In a sense, Tolkien never completed The Lord of the Rings, but revised and corrected its text while he lived; but this is quibbling.) ‘The spectacular popularity of The Lord of the Rings, which began in the mid-1960s and kept it on the best-seller lists in Britain, America, and many other countries’: the work was popular from its first publication in 1954–55, and did not need its paperback editions in the 1960s to keep sales at respectable levels (though the paperbacks served to increase sales substantially).

Peter Hunt concludes his review by stating that ‘producing a second edition [of the Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature] by comprehensively revising it would have been an impossible task (and anyway, one suspects that the attempt might have been at least partly hamstrung by OUP’s series directives).’ Not impossible, surely; difficult, definitely, and perhaps OUP would not have allowed the number of pages needed – or perhaps they would have done, as HarperCollins allowed Christina and me to have two volumes, rather than just one, for our J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide (a near thing, using thin but opaque paper to reduce the bulk, and it could have been three volumes easily). I would have given it a try, though there’s no reason to expect I would have been asked.

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