Leading your characters into temptation

On the subject of food (can you tell it’s a favourite with me?), there’s another role it can play in books, very different from the nurturing, life-enhancing way I looked at last month. Just the opposite, in fact. And while this works as a literary and moral device, it can be pretty cruel to your characters.

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And so it begins…

To begin at the beginning… How does the serpent corrupt Eve in the Garden of Eden? With a crisp, juicy apple, thus setting in motion 2,000 years of imagery in which the poor apple takes the brunt of all the evil in the world. Interestingly the idea of fruit being a catalyst for trouble isn’t just a Judeo-Christian one: think of the six pomegranate seeds swallowed by Persephone when kidnapped by Hades, which bind her to the Underworld for half the year. Or the golden apple thrown by Eris, Greek goddess of discord, into the wedding of Thetis and Peleus, which reappears at the judgement of Paris, only for him to assign it to the wrong goddess and kickstart the Trojan War.

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Golden Apple of Discord

With such powerful religious and classical antecedents, no wonder the idea of Forbidden Fruit took such hold on the western imagination, a vein of wicked temptation running from the Garden of Earthly Delights of mediaeval literature to the yearning for apricots that betrays the Duchess of Malfi to the clandestine plum pudding Edmund Gosse nibbles, in Father and Son.

Garden of Earthly Delights

The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch

This last example is especially poignant, since it comes from a memoir, not fiction. A member of the puritan Plymouth Brethren, Gosse’s father believed the pleasures associated with celebrating Christmas – singing, dancing, fine clothes and feasting – to be the work of the devil. Aghast that his little son should be so deprived, the maids feed him a slice of the plum pudding they’ve secretly made for themselves; his father, discovering the crime, ‘flung the idolatrous confectionery on to the middle of the [dust heap], and then raked it deep down into the mass.’

plum pudding

Idolatrous Confectionary

I find this scene heartbreaking to read. As Gosse himself writes, ‘The suddenness, the violence, the velocity of this extraordinary act made an impression on my memory which nothing will ever efface’ – all arising from a fear that what is enjoyable to the senses must by definition be sinful. Here is the exact opposite of the ‘speckled cannon ball…blazing in half of half-a-quartern of ignited brandy,’ that cheers the table of the hard-up Cratchit family in Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.

Oliver TwistIndeed, while Dickens makes brilliant metaphorical use of natural phenomena (the fog in Bleak House, for instance, confusing and entrapping as the legal system; or the predatory Carker’s white teeth in Dombey and Son) he is the last writer to endow an apple, a pudding, or anything else with evil characteristics. There’s nothing like a poverty-stricken childhood to teach you the true value of food. It is hunger, not greed, that prompts Oliver to ask for more (Oliver Twist). Pip quakes in terror that his theft of a pie will be discovered; yet he stole not for himself, but to feed a starving runaway convict (Great Expectations).

Great Expectations

Once food is seen for what it is – nourishing, tasty, a source of pleasure and celebration with friends – treating any part of it as somehow inherently wicked becomes both impossible and heartless.

The Lion the Witch and the WardrobeNot for some of the great children’s writers though. It’s hard on Edmund, in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe, that while his sister Lucy can safely be treated to tea and toast by a faun, he unwittingly seals his pact with the White Witch by accepting the treats she offers. (‘He had the look of one who had been with the Witch and eaten her food,’ says Mr Beaver.) The drink – ‘very sweet and foamy and creamy’ – is enchanted, of course, so no ordinary food; yet there’s a sense in which Edmund is being punished for enjoying it so much.

The Magician's nephew

And in The Magician’s Nephew, Lewis actually recreates the Garden of Eden, with poor Digory being tempted by the Witch to eat the apple from the Tree of Life (‘A terrible thirst and hunger came over him and a longing to taste that fruit’) rather than bring it, as instructed, to Aslan.

Do modern children’s books put their heroes through this kind of Food As Temptation ordeal? My impression is no, and a good thing too. Far better for the smells and tastes of delicious things to be celebrated, so encouraging a healthy relationship with eating, rather than treated as a test for your characters to fail, as some of the children in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory do, or the ever-hungry Dick in The Faraway Tree. Surely in our more secular age we can dispense with this biblical sense of guilt surrounding food. 

Not as simple as that. The popular culture young readers are growing into lays a heavy burden of blame on delectable goodies, from Salman Rushdie’s famous Naughty But Nice advertising slogan for cream cakes to Slimming World’s use of the term ‘syns’ for treats (short for ‘synergy’, I know, but that fools nobody).

Naughty but Nice

Naughty… but nice

We may no longer believe literally in the idea of Forbidden Fruit; but we are a long way from being free of its power. Cake, anyone?

 

(Adapted from an article originally published on Authors Electric Blogspot.)

 

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How to make your children intelligent

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Daisy, jumping irrelevantly

The Times recently ran a front-page story on the demise of the nursery rhyme: schools are teaching these rhymes less and less apparently, as they are ‘no longer relevant.’

This did make me laugh. At which stage in our history, exactly, was a cow jumping over a moon relevant? Or four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie? The wonderful thing about children is that they don’t give half a pound of tuppenny rice for relevance;

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Blackbirds: no longer baked in pies

what they can recognise – which, sadly, some education experts apparently can’t – is the magic of strange words and bizarre ideas woven together to stretch both their vocabulary and their imaginations. It doesn’t matter that the rhymes make no sense, or refer to a piece of long-forgotten history. My 22 month old grand-daughter has no idea that Rock a Bye Baby may refer to the ousting of James II by William of Orange in the Glorious Revolution of 1688; what she loves is the excitement of ‘when the bough breaks’ in the middle of a lullaby. Or that Ring a Ring a Roses is thought to refer to symptoms of the plague; what matters is that the words rhyme in a satisfying way, you pretend to sneeze and then fall down.

 

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Neglectful parenting

Other rhymes are even more absurd, and impossible to analyse for a hidden meaning, as in Hey diddle diddle and Sing a Song of Sixpence mentioned above. Or how about this one, a favourite of my own children:

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This working practice has no place in today’s society

 

 

There was an old woman tossed up in a basket,
Ninety-nine times as high as the moon.
Where she was going I couldn’t but ask it,
For in her hand she wielded a broom.
‘Old woman, old woman, old woman,’ said I,
‘Where are you going to up so high?’
‘To sweep the cobwebs off the sky!’
‘May I go with you?’ ‘Aye, by and by.’

 

How wonderful is that image? It literally sends the imagination soaring, all the way to the moon and far, far beyond, through a night sky latticed with cobwebs…

To demand that nursery rhymes be ‘relevant’ when you could offer children such riches feels mean and restricting. And worse. Nursery rhymes are not so different from fairy tales, both in their literary heritage and in their ability to create strange, fantastical worlds. Consider, then, Albert Einstein’s famous advice to parents:
‘If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairy tales.’

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Albert Einstein: clearly read a lot of fairy tales

And – as I know Einstein would have added, had it crossed his mind that it might be necessary – please, please don’t try to make them relevant. Not like a hand-puppet board book, This Little Piggy, recently given to my granddaughter. This version, while using charming finger puppets, has ‘updated’ the classic rhyme for our more sensitive (?) era, destroying meaning and rhythm in one fell swoop:

 

This little piggy went to market. (Original line, good. From here things go downhill.)
This little piggy stayed home. (Preposition?)
This little piggy had cookies. (What?? Where’s the roast beef?)
This little piggy had fun. (No, he didn’t. He had NONE. Everyone knows this. Line altered presumably to spare children’s distress for a piggy who had nothing to eat. I have news for the publishers: children don’t care. It’s life. They can cope with that.)
This little piggy sang wee wee wee all the way home. (No, he didn’t. He CRIED wee wee wee. He was squealing. That’s what pigs do.)

Which brings me to the many, many books and recordings of nursery rhymes on the market, and a heartfelt plea: your children matter. Don’t give them rubbish. Buy them a book of the stature of The Puffin Book of Nursery Rhymes by the incomparable Raymond Briggs: a beautifully illustrated collection, including lesser known rhymes such as Charley Barley, Butter and Eggs as well as Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star.

 

IMG_0115And for listening, you can’t do better than Tim Hart’s brilliant folk arrangements Tim Hart and Friends: My Very FavouriteNursery Rhyme Record.

 

(article first posted on http://www.authorselectric.blogspot.co.uk)